What does it take to get a driving team to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games? Practice. And a whole lot of money.
A team entry requires two or three drivers, and each driver requires two carriages and at least four horses (most bring a spare or two) plus two sets of four-in-hand harnesses and at least two grooms.
Shipping all that adds up fast.
It was apparently too fast for some countries to make the trip overseas.
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Only seven countries, including the United States and Canada, have nominated teams, and one German is planning to compete as an individual. Four years ago, at the Games in Aachen, Germany, drivers from 19 countries competed as individuals or teams.
The Hungarians finished fourth in team competition at Aachen and had been considered a top medal prospect. But they aren't coming. Neither are the Belgians, who took team silver and individual gold. And Great Britain, arguably the birthplace of the sport, isn't fielding a team, either.
In January, the British Equestrian Federation announced that it couldn't afford to send drivers to Kentucky.
"The costs to make the journey ... are extremely high, for both riders and their horses," the British team said on its Web site.
The British Horse Driving Trials Association estimated that transporting a full team — including 15 horses and six carriages — would cost more than $380,000.
Tony Bache, chairman of the BHDTA, told Horse and Hound magazine: "It is very disappointing. ... It's an obscene amount of money, and people just can't justify spending it."
"You're talking about a round-trip cost of $14,000 per horse," said former British driver David Saunders, who now competes for the United States. "Then you've got the carriages.
"A show jumper or endurance rider has a saddle and a bridle, and that's it. We're very equipment-intensive. But we also put on a good show."
A different tax bracket
Unfortunately, after weeks of practicing with his team in Northern Kentucky, Saunders had to withdraw from competition Wednesday when two of his five horses did not pass the pre-competition veterinary inspection.
Saunders is one of the few U.S. drivers who relies on sponsors. Others have their own deep pockets: U.S. champion Chester Weber is an heir to the Campbell Soup fortune; for Tucker Johnson, think baby powder, as in Johnson & Johnson; teammate Jimmy Fairclough drives horses owned by Jane Forbes Clark, whose family fortune is from the Singer sewing machine.
"Most of the other four-in-hand drivers are in a different tax bracket," Saunders said. "Driving at this level — it's like Formula One racing — is very expensive."
But shipping isn't the only expense.
There's the crew of people, said Ed Young , the chef d'équipe, or manager, of the U.S. team. At a minimum, it takes a driver and four or five people, and many drivers bring their families, he said.
Another factor, Young said, is the way the Europeans typically travel, with trucks and trailers that convert to campers and kitchens.
"They're very self-contained," he said. "They stay on-site. And they are not allowing them to camp on the grounds."
Many top drivers make it
Young said that despite the hurdles, 11 of the top 12 drivers in the world today are coming.
With nine drivers nominated either to a country's team or competing as individuals, the Americans will make up more than a third of the field.
They will take on some of the top-ranked drivers in the world, including Boyd Exell of Australia, and Koos de Ronde and Ijsbrand Chardon, both from the Netherlands.
Of the 25 drivers, two are women: Debbie Laderoute of Canada and Cindy Jo O'Reilly of the United States. O'Reilly, of North Carolina, normally drives a team of mares but, for the Games, she has included a borrowed gelding.
The sport of combined driving, modeled after the Olympic sport of eventing, encompasses three phases: driven dressage, marathon and "cones."
Dressage begins Thursday. In driven dressage, the horses, driver and two grooms must complete an intricate pattern of maneuvers. Appearance counts, so every rig is spotless, every top hat level and every brass fitting gleaming.
The marathon or cross-country competition, which features complex obstacles of fences that drivers must negotiate in quick order, begins Saturday. Drivers use a tougher, more spare carriage and wear helmets.
To balance the carriage, a groom swings from side to side and even hangs off the back.
For the final phase, drivers switch to the more elegant carriages. The driver must navigate a course of cones without knocking off balls balanced on top.
Penalty points are assessed for each ball knocked off and for going over the time allowed.
Medals are awarded for individual drivers and for national teams.