Competitor Camaraderie Marks Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games Driving Event
Twenty-five of the best four-in-hand drivers in the world competed at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) in the sport of combined driving last weekend in Lexington, Ky.
Three of the drivers were from Southern Pines, fulfilling a dream to drive their teams at the first World Equestrian Games held in the United States. The driving competition features the sport of combined driving, which includes three phases - dressage on the first day, a marathon (which in Lexington included eight obstacles designed by USA's Richard Nicoll) and a cones course the final day of the three-day event.
A large Southern Pines contingent traveled to Lexington to cheer on Bill Long, Cindy Jo O'Reilly and Gary Stover. In fact, the crowd cheered so loudly for Long at the water obstacle that it seemed like the event was taking place in Southern Pines rather than Lexington, Ky.
Gary Stover finished 18th overall.
"It was very nice putting faces and personalities to top competitors in the world that I only knew previously through watching videos of them," he said. "The quality of the horses and the drivers was outstanding."
Stover's personal best in international competition prior to the WEG was an 18th place at the World Pairs Championship in Gladstone, N.J., in 1993.
"My horses were ready for all three phases," Stover said. "They were healthy, they looked good and they felt good. My horses did the best they have done all year."
Stover's horses have earned some time off, and then he will re-group and aim toward competition next year. "The training is the fun part," said Stover, who trains his own horses.
Cindy Jo O'Reilly, one of two women drivers at the WEG (Deb Laderoute, from Canada, was the other), finished 20th overall in her first World competition.
O'Reilly was so excited to be at the World Equestrian Games that she didn't have time to be nervous. "I couldn't wipe the smile off my face with a bottle of Clorox," said O'Reilly, who drove her father's (Bob Cook) Percheron/thoroughbred mares.
The camaraderie among drivers was the highlight of O'Reilly's WEG experience. Australian Boyd Exell loaned a horse to Tucker Johnson and Exell also loaned a carriage to (his arch rival) Dutch driver IJsbrand Chardon after Chardon's carriage was vandalized prior to the marathon.
"It's a great thing to see drivers helping fellow drivers, especially drivers that they are competing against," said O'Reilly.
In fact, fellow Southern Pines driver Gary Stover graciously offered O'Reilly one of his horses. Prior to the WEG, O'Reilly received a letter confirming that she had qualified five horses. Four-in-hand drivers all qualify a fifth horse (or more) in case one of their original four horses develops lameness or an illness.
O'Reilly was informed at the last minute that the letter was an error and that she missed qualifying one of her horses by one point.
"I want to thank the Stovers for the generous loan of their horse," she said. "I also want to thank my mom and dad for hanging in there and my dad for loaning me his horses. I tell people to never lose sight of their dreams. At times, it was hard to stay focused with the stress of qualifying leading up to the games but I kept working toward my dream."
O'Reilly and her father will now retire the horses from combined driving to go back to pleasure driving.
The third WEG driver from Southern Pines, Bill Long, has been one of the most successful American drivers in international four-in-hand competition and a true ambassador for the sport of driving.
Long has been selected to compete in seven World Championships, including the 2010 WEG.
At age 65, Long decided to try qualifying for one more World Equestrian Games before retiring. Jack Wetzel, of Aiken, S.C., loaned Long his team of four, Gelderlander coaching horses which Long trained as combined driving horses.
Unfortunately, last weekend Lady Luck was not riding on Bill Long's carriage. Long broke the pole to his carriage in the first obstacle of the marathon when he caught the carriage on a post in the first (A) gate. (There are six gates to each obstacle, A-F).
"I thought something was wrong when I got to the C gate because the carriage would go straight despite the horses turning. After that I was going to quit but I decided to go on," Long said. "I still haven't figured out how I got through the hazards. I probably should have quit. I wouldn't want to try that again."
Only someone with Long's experience could have continued on with a broken pole. Then, at obstacle six, the officials said Long missed a gate (which incurs elimination), leaving Long out of the standings.
"In 34 years of combined driving, I was eliminated once," he said. "It doesn't go away. It was my last competition and I didn't want to go out that way. But that is horse shows. There have to be winners and losers."
The top three individual drivers of the competition were Australian Boyd Exell, who captured the gold medal, Dutch driver IJsbrand Chardon, who took the silver, and Tucker Johnson from the United States, who won the bronze medal.
Boyd Exell, driving with a fractured bone in his left hand (which he injured while jumping a horse over a cross-country obstacle at home just before the games), set a new World Championship record in driving dressage (30.08) the first day of competition with his team of black geldings, owned by Hungary's Vincze Tamas. The previous World Record was set by Chester Weber (USA), who scored 32.13 penalty points at the 2008 World four-in-hand Driving Championships in Beesd (NED).
Exell has ties to Southern Pines. His sponsor is former Vass resident Boots Wright. Exell travels to Southern Pines in the spring to coach drivers preparing for the Southern Pines CDE.
After dressage and third place in the marathon there were only 1.72 penalty points separating Exell and IJsbrand Chardon of the Netherlands. An estimated crowd of 5,000 spectators filled the driving arena on the final day of competition to watch Exell drive a safe cones course and win his first individual gold medal. Chardon took the silver; with the bronze going to USA's Tucker Johnson.
In the team competition, the Dutch team won the gold, the USA team of Tucker Johnson, Jimmy Fairclough and Chester Weber brought home the silver medal. Germany took the bronze medal.
By the closing day of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, total attendance topped half a million. The 2014 World Equestrian Games will be held in Normandy, France.
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