Despite the best attempts of his closest rivals, Boyd Exell (AUS) kept a cool head during a soaking final Cones round in Pratoni to win a decisive 6th individual FEI Driving World Championship for Four-in-Hand, his unbroken reign intact after his first gold 12 years ago in Lexington (USA).
His greatest opponent, the four-time champion Ijsbrand Chardon (NED), pushed him every step of the way, nearly spoiling a fairytale ending for the man who has dominated the international stage for so long.
Having just watched his son Bram produce a lightning-fast clear round – the only double clear of the day over Josef Middendorf’s (GER) tricky course with a tight time – Ijsbrand left all the balls on top and with only 2.35 time penalties, put himself firmly in contention for his 5th individual gold. Ending 2nd in the phase, he also ensured that his national team stayed on top.
But Boyd wasn’t going to let his grip on the crown slip, and he drove a measured round, which tallied only 5.92 in time, comfortably within the margin he had over Ijsbrand, who had to settle for another silver, 3.76 behind Boyd’s final score of 156.09.
“I have the pressure of having fantastic horses and you mustn’t let them down. That’s one of the hardest things – they are 15 years old now and so experienced. The team of people around me, all the helpers, it’s about not letting them down too. Plus Koos, Bram and Ijsbrand – they add to the pressure too. So even when you have great horses, you also have to watch out for these guys.
When you look back in history, other drivers have had fantastic horses, and I’ve also had them over the years. Over time, everybody has great horses. It’s nice to remember them too.
The pressure was also about keeping the reins dry – I had a second pair of gloves which I hadn’t thought I’d need! Also, the horses and carriage were starting to slip in the corners. The course was a good testing course today, but only in good conditions. With all the many U-turns in the wet conditions, it made it much harder. I used the information my team fed back to me about the rounds before me and I didn’t expect my horses to spook at the wooden horse in the middle, which cost me a few seconds. But overall, I tried to stay calm and not knock any balls“, Boyd Exell explained.
Michael Brauchle (GER), who drove such an emphatic Marathon on Saturday with his razor-sharp horses, perhaps let the hope of toppling Boyd get to him. He rolled one ball and gathered a few time faults to slip a place into bronze (163.89). But as one of the talented next-generation drivers who performed so brilliantly all weekend, his is a name that we expect to see on many podiums in years to come.
Following Bram’s incredible Cones which gave in a win in the section and a 4th on the leaderboard (165.92), Koos de Ronde knew that he had to produce a safe round to keep his nation in gold contention. Although he struggled on the final section of the course, through a four-combination ‘wave’ at no. 19 and a narrow ‘oxer’ at 20, he upheld the Dutch grip despite three balls off and a few time penalties (12.99) which saw him finish in 7th overall. As the third last to go, Ijsbrand, who admitted later that he has been concentrating on Cones during his training regime, channelled his many years of doing the job to steer his team to success.
“Everyone had to wait a long time - including myself - for that performance this week! I knew when I made the change (of horse) before the vet-check that Dressage and Marathon was going to be hard but I still had my A-team for Cones. We are under pressure from Germany and still have two Dutch to go so this score will count for sure. This was the maximum I could do today, they felt amazing and I knew I had to put the pressure on the rest and we’ll see where it ends.
I’m the current Dutch, European and World Cup Champion but on the World Championship I had unusual mistakes, the same as Tryon. I needed revenge on the Sunday, I needed it today as well to show that I can do it", Bram Chardon said.
Germany had led the team event after Dressage, then fell into silver after the Marathon, and going into the last day there was a mere 3.27 between the two giants. However, as the Netherlands stretched ahead after Bram’s blistering round, their dreams of gold evaporated. Ending on 327.45 to the Netherland’s 313.93, they nevertheless received plaudits from the winners for their gutsy challenge.
Glen Geerts bore all the weight of Belgian expectations to maintain their bronze position (356.39) and with a characteristically well-judged Cones, kept himself near the leaders with a 6th place (173.74). It was enough to keep the French team in 4th (346.49), despite their lynchpin Benjamin Aillaud’s smooth round which tallied only 7.45 in time.
Relying on her ever-calm head in Cones, Mareike Harm (GER), who had posted the only other sub-40 Dressage mark alongside Boyd, knew that she would shine. Although the weather was becoming increasingly murky, she clocked only 4.89 in time to finish 3rd in the phase and secure silver for her team, together with Georg von Stein.
The weather Gods had kept themselves in check for most of Sunday afternoon, after event director Giuseppe della Chiesa decided to push back the start of the Cones to 12.30pm due to a foreboding forecast which had included thunder and lightning. As it was, the worst of the storms had passed overnight which rendered the swirling Pratoni dust a sticky black mud. But the blue skies were short lived as halfway through proceedings, the clouds dropped over Rocca di Pappa and for the climactic swathe of drivers, the rain lashed down, making vision and rein-handling difficult.
Despite being drenched, Boyd’s drove a classy round. Since his last gold in 2018 in Tryon (USA), we wondered if he could do it again. He did, and in commanding style.
And the Netherlands, the dominant national force for so long, showed the rest of the world that with 11 team golds, with squads that have always included Ijsbrand Chardon, they have no intention of relinquishing their position, either.
But perhaps the biggest winner of the weekend was Pratoni del Vivaro. Revived as a first-class event venue again, by a passionate and dedicated team, it hosted two iconic FEI World Championships, ensuring that it’s legacy lives on.