Moving like black satin under the Kentucky sun, the team of four young Warmbloods driven by Australian Boyd Exell set a record in four-in-hand driven dressage Friday at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
"It's hard to believe it could all come together on the right day, because there are so many factors," Exell said. "I didn't think the judges had any room to go up."
On Thursday, Dutch driver IJsbrand Chardon and American Chester Weber tied with scores of 35.97. The only way to best that was to be perfect, which Exell was, getting 10s on some maneuvers.
His penalty score was 30.08, which Games officials said was the best ever recorded in a world championship.
After his crowd-thrilling ride, Exell patted each horse in thanks. He said he could tell even in the warm-up that it was going to be electric even though this is only their fourth competition as a team.
"I had to stop myself from smiling in there because they were doing it on their own," Exell said. "I had to stop myself from chuckling."
He said once it got in front of the crowd, the team "just went on rails. I was a bit of a passenger."
The team had to do a little more on its own than normal because a week ago Exell broke his left hand while jumping cross-country fences on a horse.
A bit of a daredevil, Exell broke his leg before the World Equestrian Games at Aachen in 2006 and had to pull out of that competition. "People have been looking at me like, 'Didn't you learn your lesson?'" he said.
"He got less sympathy than when he broke the leg," his wife, Preetha, said after Friday's test.
Boyd Exell said he is counting on the adrenaline taking over Saturday during the marathon phase of combined driving to get him through the complex obstacles.
The second phase of combined driving begins at 10 a.m. In marathon, drivers use a sturdier carriage and wear helmets and safety vests; some teams will substitute a different horse into the team of four, depending on each horse's strength.
Exell will be looking over his shoulder at Chardon.
"You can never underestimate IJsbrand Chardon. The more you hold him back, the more he fights back," Exell said. "He'll be flying tomorrow."
Despite the tight competition at the top, there was great camaraderie among the drivers. For the Games, Exell lent his spare horse to American driver Tucker Johnson, who drove his way into a tie for fourth place Friday. Johnson joked that the horse is named Black Shadow but "when I'm mad at him I call him Boyd."
Johnson, who is retiring from competition after the Games, was emotional after his 40.19-point test, which equaled Dutch driver Theo Timmerman and left the Americans and Dutch tied for team gold.
"There are some emotional ups and downs," said Johnson, tearing up when asked about the cheers for his test. "I felt very good about that and good about the test."
Johnson predicted Saturday's marathon will be exciting. "I think you're going to see some really fast driving tomorrow," he said.
French driver Stephane Chouzenoux said the heat will be a factor Saturday. "That's hard on the horses," he said.
But American driver Joshua Rector, the alternate for the U.S. team, is from Arizona, and he and his team aren't likely to be bothered. "This is the fewest coats I've worn all week," Rector said. "I think it's freezing."
Cindy Jo O'Reilly, one of two women in the driving competition, said she was happy with her all-mare team's score of 80.13 even though that put them in last place.
"I wouldn't trade these girls for a million dollars. They're my pets," said O'Reilly, who is competing as an individual. "They are my girls."
American driver Mike McClennan may have the most unique horses in the combined driving competition: his team is a cross between German Friesians and American quarter horses, specifically cutting horses.
The combination made for a lively dressage test Friday morning. Maybe a little too lively, said McClennan, who is competing as an individual and scored 67.46.
"Had two breaks in the walk (horses breaking out of their walk) and that killed me," McClennan said. One horse in particular has been anticipating the changes "and he thinks he's the boss," he said. "We were just happy to live through it."