The atmosphere became electric as Australian Boyd Exell defiantly launched his campaign to win a record sixth FEI Driving World Championship. The buoyant crowd had waited all day to see a sub-40 score appear on the massive digital boards flanking the Dressage arena. Their patience was rewarded as moments after Boyd’s masterful black Warmbloods exited, the score of 34.13 was met with cheers. From the second they hit the centre line, the horses showed power and panache, and proceeded to flow through the movements in a class of their own.
“I love Driving, the score is only the icing on the cake. My right leader is Checkmate and today he was the showpiece. He was a wheeler in Normandy and Tryon and now he’s a leader. He’s always been a really special horse. Celviro is my left leader, he’s the solid one and every time he delivers. I have a new wheeler called Hero and he did well - he’s a marathon specialist.
I have a nice lead but it’s a three-day competition and a lot can go wrong. We had problems in Aachen in the cross-country and a five-point lead is not enough so it’s not over until Sunday afternoon" Boyd Exell explained.
In what was quickly turning into a fairy tale finale for fans, opened so imperiously by Boyd, next in was his greatest rival, the legendary Ijsbrand Chardon (NED), a four-time FEI Driving World Champion. Never one cowed by what has gone before, Ijsbrand harnessed all his experience and verve to produce a rewarding 42.98, not only putting himself into medal contention in 5th place individually, but ensuring that The Netherlands have every chance of winning a record 10th world gold medal.
Continuing the climactic parade of champions, next in was 2004 gold medallist, the flamboyant Zoltán Lázár (HUN), making a welcome return to top tier competition. Not missing a beat, he steered his handsome horses into contention, his 44.85 putting him in 6th place.
“I’m still recovering after a knee operation, so this is only the third event I’ve done this year. My team of horses is great, and I love them! One of them made a little mistake today but I think we can do better later in the event. The horse that made a mistake didn’t like the atmosphere and needs some time to get used to it. In the team I have two Dutch horses, one German-bred and one I bred on my own Lázár Farm near Budapest. I breed jumping horses, and this is the only one I have bred for carriage driving." Zoltán Lázár said.
As the late afternoon sun bathed all it touched in a golden hue, especially Driving’s leading lady Mareike Harm’s rippling bay horses, she maintained her consistency in this opening phase by also going below 40 and moving herself into 2nd place overnight with 38.85. Her fantastic mark also pushed the national team into first place, which added to Michael Brauchle’s morning score of 49.18, giving them a total of 88.03.
“I’m really happy! I had a little bit of pressure because I had to do the Dressage score for the team and we made it. It’s totally different than when you are driving just for yourself, a lot more pressure.
It’s a mixed team of horses, Dutch Warmblood, Oldenburger, Westphalian. They are aged between 11 and 16. I started riding, my mum also rode and had problems with her back, so she started driving and one day I took the reins and started driving pony singles and in 2010 I was here for the World Singles Championship and won the gold medal with the German team - so this is a good place for me. After that I had four single horses and we put them together in a team and in beginning everybody said you can’t do that as a woman, it’s too strong and too hard in the Marathon. And the Marathon is hard because the men are stronger for sure. But I can do a good Dressage and good Cones and try to lose not too many points in the Marathon.” Mareike Harm explained.
The Germans are only a slither ahead of the Dutch by 1.2, who were not only pre-event favourites for gold but are also aiming for a record-breaking 10th world title. Reigning European and FEI World Cup™ Champion, Bram Chardon (NED), posted a decent score of 46.25 in the opening session which may have been more than he had hoped for, but combined with his father’s mark to give 89.23, it’s enough to keep the team event tight at the top.
Potentially stalling the dominance of the European national teams, Boyd’s score plus Tor Van Den Berge’s earlier 57.37 has put Australia overnight into 3rd, comfortably in front of Belgium on 102.75, but only just ahead of Hungary on 103.29 and France on 103.61. These positions will chop and change during the Marathon on Saturday and the battle to take a podium place promises to be enthralling.
On a day when the drivers were having to really earn their marks from the five international judges, it seemed that Chester Weber’s (USA) 41.52 from day one, which initially had felt below expectations, grew in strength as the time progressed. Having done enough to go into the Marathon in 3rd, he has given himself a fighting chance of once again being in the medals individually. Tucked in 4th place behind Chester remains Anna Sandmann (GER), who impressed so much with 42.52 on day one, a remarkable opening gambit at what is her first Four-in-Hand World Championship.
With 37 drivers preparing to tackle Josef Middendorf’s (GER) eight new obstacles on the Marathon, it’s all to play for in Pratoni!
For more information on the FEI World Championships 2022 in Pratoni del Vivaro (ITA), go to: https://pratoni2022.it/en
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