Allentown, N.J., June 6, 2010 -- For a long as I've been writing about four-in-hand driving, I've been documenting the activities of the same people over and over. First it was Bill Long; and then Chester Weber, Jimmy Fairclough and Tucker Johnson, the three drivers who are the perennial U.S. team at the world championships.
Some of the Europeans are cranky about having to fly their horses and carriages over here (though of course we have always flown ours over there for the championships and WEGs.) The sinking Euro has made it even tougher, so a number of countries will have teams of two rather than three (the third person enables a squad to have a drop score) and others won't send individuals. We won't know who's coming and who's not for a few months, but in the meantime, competition here is hot and heavy to be a part of the first WEG that is affordable for a broader cross-section of American four-in-hand enthusiasts.
They're all still going, and yes, even before the selection committee has spoken, I think it's safe to say that it will be Chester, Jimmy and Tucker who will be vying for a team medal this fall at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.
But having the WEG in our country for the first time has had a very healthy effect on the U.S. four-in-hand ranks, because America will be able to send at least four, and possibly six, drivers as individual competitors. As a result, this weekend's Garden State Driving Event, a WEG selection trial, drew an amazing 11 teams. I can remember the days when it was considered sensational to have even five or six teams.
Enthusiasm has spread across the country from the East Coast, where most of the four-in-hand drivers have lived. Both Tucker and Bill will be retiring from competition after the WEG, so it's nice to think that maybe the interest will continue and younger competitors, such as Arizonan Josh Rector and Montanan Joe Yoder (both in their 20s), will continue to beef up the division after this year.
As expected, Garden State was a coronation for Chester, the eight-time national champion. He won all three phases, finishing on a score of 116.64 penalties to 140.67 for runner-up Josh; 163.47 for Bill and 168.05 for Joe, who was fourth.
Lizzy Staller, who is the director of driving for the U.S. Equestrian Federation, called Joe and Josh "really exciting" and was proud of the way they finished. She pointed out that Joe has been driving a four-in-hand only for six months, while Josh, who has been getting help from Chester, "really figured it out."
Chester didn't even use his A team, leaving superstar Rolex at home in Ocala, Fla., to rest, as he tested other horses and kept his focus.
Jimmy, who is sponsored by U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation President Jane Clark, was giving Chester a run for his money. In the dressage, Chester scored a respectable 41.7 penalties, but Jimmy wasn't too far behind with 45.44, a big improvement courtesy of two horses he is leasing from Keady Cadwell, who used them in the World Pairs Championship.
The marathon was far closer. Chester won with 75.05 penalties, while Jimmy was just 0.02 penalties behind that. Going into the cones, Jimmy was unlikely to win unless Chester had a disaster, but those things do happen. This time, though, the disaster happened to Jimmy. The New Jersey driver completely missed obstacle 18 of 20 pairs of orange cones topped with yellow balls. He went directly from 17 to 19. Going off course means elimination, so that was it for him, though he now heads to Europe to hone his game and I'll bet he won't be making any more mistakes on cones courses. Chester knows how it goes; the same thing happened to him at the 2006 WEG in Aachen Germany.
As Chester helped dismantle his carriage for shipping, we talked about the weekend and what happened to Jimmy.
By the way, when he said '96, he meant 2006.
After that I caught up with an embarrassed Jimmy, who has been competing at the top level of the sport for more than three decades. He was good-natured about recounting the problem and telling me what happened.
Garden State was a bare-bones event when it came to frills, but it was well-run. Organizer Heather Walker, who was in charge of the late, lamented Gladstone Driving Event during its heyday, kept things rolling along. From the competition side, you wouldn't have known it was being done on a shoestring.
Margie Margentino did a great job designing the marathon course, which had to be shortened and cut from seven hazards to six when predictions (that came true) for Saturday involved 93-degree heat and high humidity. As always, the welfare of the horses was the first concern. Some looked as if they were dragging a bit, but most handled the challenge with aplomb.
"I did my homework right and the four-in-hands went out and used every option I put out there," said Margie, who was pleased with how the drivers coped with her layout.
"They were able to give a real display of horsemanship by using the different routes, whatever was best for their particular horses. It wasn't every carriage doing the same route through each hazard. It gave the audience something to look at and really showed the horses' ability," she commented.
In the FEI singles, a selection trial for that group's world championships this summer in Italy, no one dominated the way Chester did in the four-in-hands.
Bill Peacock took the dressage with 42.88 penalties, as Robin Groves was further back (46.93) and Kimberly Stover came in third (49.28). Scott Monroe was fourth (49.71) with Bethesda's After Dark, his 17-year-old black Morgan better known as Shadow. But the marathon changed everything. Robin took herself out of the running when she was eliminated for missing a gate in the sixth hazard. Bill came in ninth in the marathon with 71.31 penalties, while Kimberly was fourth in that segment with a score of 59.63. Scott won the marathon with 55.52 penalties, putting him into the lead for the title.
But he was just too slow in the cones. No one in any of the FEI divisions finished cones with a double-clear, not even Chester, who had 0.42 time penalties. Although Scott didn't dislodge even one of those little yellow balls, his cautious approach resulting in 14.09 time penalties meant he sank to seventh in the cones, and second overall with a score of 119.3. Kimberly was the fastest of the single horses with Laughlin, her Connemara/thoroughbred cross, to win the cones and the event with a score of 113.33. Bill Peacock came in third, rebounding from the marathon, with a second place in the cones to finish on a score of 119.76 with Beau, his Friesian/Holsteiner cross-bred.
The daughter-in-law of four-in-hand competitor Gary Stover (who was fifth in his division) Kim is hoping that this time she will make it to the World Championships after coming close three times. In 1998, she made the team with Unicorn Janie, only to have her contract a virus, and founder. The mare had to be put down. In 2000, she was set for the team with Miles To Go when he went lame, but the point was moot since the championship was cancelled. In 2002, she was selected as the alternate with True Grit, so she didn't make the trip.
But it looks like Garden State provided the finishing touch on the Delaware resident's ticket to Italy.
Scott, a Connecticut arborist, is looking forward to one more try at the Worlds with Shadow.
I can't wait until the driving at the WEG; I think we're looking at a team medal and maybe even an individual medal, though the competition will be rough--the Europeans get to practice against each other a lot more than our guys do. If you're interested in more details on the drivers, go to DiscoverHorses.com to read their bios. We'll be putting even more up soon.
Check out my Garden State photo gallery.