Aachen, Germany, August 31, 2006 -- The U.S. is at the top of the leaderboard in four-in-hand driving at the World Equestrian Games, courtesy of Chester Weber's brilliant victory in the dressage segment and Tucker Johnson's fifth place finish there today.
But with the marathon looming tomorrow, the Americans aren't counting on any medals at the moment.
"It's a long race yet," said Jimmy Fairclough, the third member of the squad, who finished 25th and is the anchor man for the next phase of the competition.
America has 82.04 penalties, to 88.07 for Belgium and 88.19 for Germany. Those three countries seem to be the main contenders. The Swiss are not a factor with only two drivers after their Werner Ulrich had a back operation, but the Dutch and Hungarians both could threaten in the marathon.
Chester felt his test wasn't as good as the one he put in at Riesenbeck earlier this summer.
"It was really heavy and deep in there," said Chester. "It was hard to get going forward."
Even so, a total of 38.78 penalties still put him nicely ahead of former world champion Ysbrand Chardon of the Netherlands, whose total was 41.22. A surprising third was Michael Freund, the local favorite who finished on 41.6 and swears this will be his last outing at the international level, and who some expected to win the segment.
Michael took the world championship in 2004, but was disqualified because one of his horses tested positive for a prohibited substance that he swears the animal picked up from a plant while grazing in a Hungarian field at the site of the competition.
His recent demotion elevated Zoltan Lazar of Hungary to the world title, but Michael is determined to win it back. He said although he's quitting because he's been at it a long time, and he wants to depart at the top of his game, he added the situation with the 2004 world title didn't do anything toward encouraging him to stay.
Jimmy noted the key thing here is for the team to complete the competition.
"We all have to make sure we finish. In Breda, we all started out good in dressage, but Tucker didn't finish, so his dressage score got yanked out," said Jimmy.
Every driver has his or her own style, not only in how they execute their tests, but also in their look. Zoltan is dashing with his white horses and grooms attired in wine-colored embroidered livery. Chester cultivates a studied elegance.
But my favorite is the top-hatted George Bowman, the 71-year-old British veteran who started driving back during the Industrial Revolution, I think. This is his 16th world championship, and he came in a very credible ninth in the dressage. I can't wait to see him flying along in the marathon, especially considering that one of his horses is named Treacle. Don't you love it? Hope he isn't as slow as molasses...
There was a packed house for the driving dressage, the first time that has ever happened at Aachen. You have to say that this WEG couldn't have been much more successful as far as attracting a crowd. Walking back by the jumping arena, I saw people camping out on the rail to get a good vantage point four hours before the second round of the Nations' Cup was to begin.
Read about the first day of driving dressage competition: Driving Dressage Begins at 2006 WEG.