After the first day of four-in-hand combined driving competition Thursday at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Boyd Exell, who took the gold medal Sunday, thought he had no chance at winning.
He had just watched 22-time Dutch national champion and four-time world champion IJsbrand Chardon and eight-time U.S. national champion Chester Weber tie for the lead in dressage.
"I said to my crew that we'll just have to fight for silver," said Exell, who has been aiming for the title for a decade.
Instead, Exell put in a world record dressage test on Friday, going into the marathon phase in the lead.
"Then Chardon pulled another one out of the bag on Saturday," said the Australian driver. Despite a sabotaged carriage, Chardon made up enough ground on the cross-country course to gain on Exell.
"All season IJsbrand and I have been neck-and-neck," Exell said.
Going into Sunday's final phase — the gated obstacle course, known as cones— Exell held less than a three-point lead, exactly the penalty for knocking off one ball on the course.
(Combined driving is modeled after the Olympic sport of eventing with phases in driven dressage, marathon and cones.)
There were 20 gates on the course, with two long serpentine runs of four sets of cones, so drivers had to thread a team of four horses cleanly past 52 orange balls on cones, with just 10 centimeters of clearance for the carriage.
Unfortunately for Chardon, his carriage hit one cone and knocked off a ball, adding three points to his score. "We have this day a lucky ball for Boyd," Chardon said later.
That gave Exell, who was driving just after Chardon in the final position and with a broken right hand, a bit of a cushion.
Exell went clear but slightly over the time allowed, adding 3.52 penalty points. Chardon's mistake gave Exell just enough of margin — 1.24 points — to give the Australian the gold medal.
"We had to work hard all weekend," Exell said. "Normally, if you do a 30 in dressage, you could have a comfortable weekend. But the other competitors didn't let me do that."
However, Chardon's drive was good enough to clinch the team gold medal for the Netherlands, together with drivers Theo Timmerman and Koos de Ronde.
U.S. takes silver
Tucker Johnson of the United States took the individual bronze medal despite knocking off one cone. His drive, plus two clear drives from teammates Chester Weber and Jimmy Fairclough, gave the U.S. team the silver medal.
Johnson, who is retiring after the Games, stood in the carriage and waved to spectators as he left the arena for the last time as a competitor. There were huge cheers from the crowd of more than 5,000 that nearly filled the driving stadium.
"I've loved the time I spent driving, loved being on the team with these guys," Johnson said. "It felt good. Not everyone gets the opportunity to end something on such a high feeling. It was just a good culmination of a lot of experiences."
It was a tense day of starts and stops for the Americans.
Weber and Fairclough were forced to circle their horses in the warm-up ring for about an hour after the timing system at the arena broke down repeatedly. Weber was sent into the arena twice for what turned out to be false starts.
The timing system first broke down while German driver Ludwig Weinmayr was on course, forcing him to restart. "In the beginning of the test, you're very concentrated. It takes a little bit off to have to restart," Weinmayr said through a translator.
Stewards, or judges, who thought they would be forced to switch to manual timing, pulled out a bag of stopwatches. But the timing system was repaired after more than an hour's delay.
"We reacted as quickly as we could," said Jamie Link, chief executive of the Games foundation. "It certainly wasn't a premium situation, but that's part of the sport. Obviously, we wish it didn't happen."
But Weber said the delay was "unacceptable." His horses were in harness for more than 2½ hours before competing.
"Just terrible organization here," Weber said. "The fact that they don't have a contingency plan after the clock stops, it's sort of silly."
He also complained that the stables were more than a half-hour walk from the driving practice rings, meaning teams wasted hours each day going back and forth.
Fairclough said the distant stabling made things "extremely difficult for all the competitors. But it was the same for everybody."
Concern about drugs
Later, Chardon expressed concern after one of his horses was selected for random drug testing by the Fédération Equestre International, the governing body of the sport.
He asked that all his horses, not just one, be tested and that the blood be compared to that drawn while the horses were in quarantine before competition, he said.
Chardon, who at first said that he could not believe he was deliberately targeted by vandalism to his carriage Friday night, said his family and others think he must have been.
Now, he said, he is worried that the horse will test positive for a banned substance and he will be held accountable.
Chardon said he had been given no new information about the investigation, which is being handled by Kentucky State Police.
There were other disappointments on the final day of driving and the Games.
The Germans said they were happy to win the bronze medal but disappointed because they got the medal only after a Swedish driver was eliminated.
Tomas Eriksson of Sweden, who was competing with a broken foot, turned the wrong way three gates from the finish line and was disqualified, leaving the Swedes without two drivers for the team score. Eriksson declined to comment.
Team manager Leif Larsson said he did not know whether the delay in starting affected Eriksson's concentration.
"I don't know what it was. Unusual for Tomas. He's normally right on it," Larsson said. "Great, great disappointment. We have the bronze until the 18th" gate.
G S B T
Great Britain 9 7 3 19
Germany 5 5 4 14
Netherlands5 3 1 9
United States 3 2 3 8
Denmark 0 3 4 7
Belgium 1 2 1 4
United Arab Emirates1 1 1 3
Australia 1 0 2 3
France 0 2 1 3
Canada 0 1 2 3
New Zealand 0 0 2 2
Switzerland 1 0 0 1
Spain 1 0 0 1
Saudi Arabia 0 1 0 1
Austria 0 0 1 1
Finland 0 0 1 1
Italy 0 0 1 1