October 8, 2010 -- We got multi-discipline thrills today at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, as Boyd Exell set a new world driving dressage record during the afternoon and show jumper McLain Ward made an incredible comeback in the evening.
That's what this compilation of world championships is supposed to be about, having the best in eight sports in the same place so you don't have to settle for just one dose of excitement each day.
The driving venue was abuzz as Boyd, an Australian who lives in Britain, drove his magnificent team of black horses into the arena. You didn't have to know anything about the first phase of combined driving to realize as he went along that he was driving a perfect test. Not a hoof was out of place on his horses, who flowed--rather than walking and trotting--through all the movements.
"I'm in awe," said a well-dressed woman as she greeted Boyd after his test.
"I didn't think it would be that good," he responded politely, but he said he knew he was having a heck of a performance even before the mind-boggling 30.08 penalty point score was announced to enormous applause. That was more than two points better than the previous record of 32.13, set by the USA's Chester Weber at the last World Four-in-Hand World Championship in the Netherlands two years ago.
Boyd, who is quite charming, talked about the special feeling he had while driving today.
Boyd is way out in front in the standings, with Chester and many times Dutch champion Ijsbrand Chardon tied on 35.97 penalties. The Dutch and U.S. teams are also tied, for first place, on 76.16 penalties, followed by the two-man Australian squad on 85.38.
The U.S. got a boost from the skill of Tucker Johnson, tied for fourth with another Dutch driver, Theo Timmerman with 40.19 penalties.
Tucker got a huge cheer as he exited the arena, the last time he will drive in a world championship, because he is retiring to concentrate on work and his family.
As the noise from the spectators subsided, I asked Tucker if he will miss the adulation. He took a while to answer, wiping away some tears as he thought about what "last time" really means. He spoke about it in a voice full of emotion.
Though he is the favorite to win here, Boyd pointed out that the Saturday marathon phase can change everything. He may have a handicap because he broke a bone in his left hand, jumping a horse on a cross-country course at home before coming here. Smart thing to do with the world championships on the horizon, right? He had to change his grip in dressage at one point, and that's harder to do in the marathon, though he's certainly accomplished enough to pull it off.
After the driving, the focus turned to show jumping. The initial round of the class was limited to the top 30, culled from a field of 120 who started on Monday. Only 25 returned for a second round to determine who would compete for the world championship Saturday night. The format, as I've said before, is an unusual one, with the riders competing on their own mounts, then switching with the others to jump the same course. Some say it should be called the world catch-riding championship, but it provides interesting results and great entertainment getting there.
The Final Four will start even. It includes a newcomer, Saudi Arabia's Abdullah Al Sharbatly with an Italian horse, the very convincing mare Seldana di Campalto; former world champion, Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil on HH Rebozo; Olympic individual gold medalist Eric Lamaze of Canada with Hickstead and Belgium's team bronze medalist Philippe LeJeune on Vigo D'Arsouilles, who is by Nabab de Reve--the horse Philippe rode on the bronze medal team in the 2002 WEG.
McLain had dreamed of winning the individual championship, but following a disastrous performance by the U.S. team that put the squad 10th, he stood 26th. Although Laura Kraut also qualified for the top 30 in 19th place, she decided to skip it, while another dropout left McLain ranked 24th as tonight's semi-finals began.
This time, McLain jumped a clean round with Sapphire as fans screamed their approval. Afterwards, he talked about the U.S. debacle here.
While he and Laura were on the 2008 Olympic gold medal team, he noted the other half of the squad consisted of Lauren Hough, who didn't have a lot of experience with Quick Study, and Mario Deslauriers riding a mere 9-year-old, Urico, who had never done anything of this caliber. So although McLain didn't think the U.S. deserved the label of favorite coming in, it still was a shock the way the team finished.
After making his comments, he put his red coat back on and took Sapphire out for the second round over a different course. Once again he jumped clean, finishing seventh over all and tying with Eric and Abdullah for first place in this evening's class.
Going back over the week once more, he said, "I think that we made some foolish errors in the Nations' Cup and dug a deep hole that we couldn't get out of. "
He noted on the first day, he made a mistake at the green oxer that came two jumps after the water obstacle. The next night, he tried to over-correct and the green oxer got him again.
"Being the anchor did put some emotional weight on me," he conceded.
"I can't blame the horse for it. It was my fault."
Before the driving, I snatched a few minutes to go to vaulting, and was greatly entertained. It's truly amazing to see people doing handstands and cartwheels on a slowly cantering horse.
I didn't have much time, but I did get a chance to talk with American vaulter Todd Griffiths, who performed to the tune "Nice and Easy" before launching himself toward the ceiling in a jet-propelled dismount. I noted from the media guide that he is 30, which struck me as old for a vaulter (the youngest one at the WEG is 9 years old, someone from France told me.)
Here's what Todd had to say:
Tomorrow I'll tell you all about the marathon, and if I can squeeze in some more vaulting, all the better.
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