Carriage driving nearly got a little too cutthroat on Saturday for Dutch driver IJsbrand Chardon.
Chardon's marathon carriage was vandalized overnight in the stables area at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, but he and his team came back with a fantastic ride to win the marathon phase of four-in-hand combined driving.
The carriage's cushions were slashed, and Dutch officials also feared the brakes might have been tampered with after oil and brake fluid were found on the carriage.
Through a translator, Chardon said that he couldn't imagine anyone doing this to him, that he's well-liked among competitors. "It's got to have been a lunatic," he said.
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Fellow Dutch team member Koos de Ronde said the international driving community is very friendly, so it must be sabotage and not just a prank.
"It's a pity," De Ronde said. He said his carriage was parked next to Chardon's in the stable area and both were fine when they left last night about 7 p.m.
"Whoever tried to sabotage me hasn't won," Chardon said after his drive. Despite the psychological toll, he said he overcame the incident "with dignity."
He certainly overcame it with speed. Chardon is now hard on the heels of the leader, Australian driver Boyd Exell, with American Tucker Johnson moving up into third place. Chardon's drive also propelled the Netherlands into first place in team standings, followed by the U.S. and Sweden.
The other Americans tumbled in the standings after both Chester Weber and James Fairclough had trouble on the course. Fairclough's groom, Peter Lipinski, went tumbling across the ground after the carriage clipped a pole at the third obstacle. He climbed back on and completed the course but was taken to the hospital later for X-rays, Fairclough said.
The morning's drama in the stables nearly overshadowed the competition.
Chardon's wife, Pauline, who is also his navigator, said she and their son, Bram, discovered the trouble around midday, about 45 minutes before they were getting ready to compete. As they were walking past the carriages, which were behind the barns, she spotted damage to the pole leading from the front of the carriage.
"My first thought was, this is not such a nice joke," Pauline Chardon said. "Then I thought, why would you do such a thing?"
After they removed the cover over the carriage and saw the extent of the damage, she thought, "IJsbrand has to know."
Then a terrible thought hit her: "When they can come to my carriage, they can come to my horses. That was my breaking point. ... It was so close to my horses. If someone's that crazy, he can damage your horse."
FEI officials and Kentucky State Police were alerted to the incident, which is still under investigation. State police said they are reviewing camera footage from the stable area.
Dutch official Maarten Van Der Heijden said there were no cameras specifically on the carriages, which were parked between two trailers inside the stable's security fence.
Ben Horsman, the Dutch team veterinarian, said all the horses appeared to be unharmed.
IJsbrand Chardon said that, at first, FEI officials did not want to let him delay his scheduled 1:20 p.m. start to give him enough time to check out and repair the carriage.
"They said if the rig wasn't ready, we wouldn't be able to start," Chardon said, speaking through a translator. He refused to rush because of concerns about the brakes.
After polling the team managers of all the other countries, the ground jury decided to push Chardon's start back to 2:10, said Ian Williams of the Fédération Equestre International.
That still had them scrambling.
"It was a bit crazy. Also, (bad) for the concentration," Van Der Heijden said. "The damage also was between the ears."
"It was a bit tense," Chardon said, but the extra time gave his crew a chance to get their heads back in the game.
His wife was particularly emotional, he said. But with support from the others, including other competitors who offered to loan carriages, they were able to make it onto the course, where everything began falling into place.
Chardon said as soon as he was through the first obstacle, where he set the fastest time, he was determined to go on.
"When we came over the finish and found out we're only two points behind Boyd (Exell), I thought, it's not possible," Pauline Chardon said. "But ... it was possible," she said with a smile.
For Sunday, Chardon and Johnson both plan to pour it on in the final phase of competition, the stadium obstacles or "cones." Johnson said he was delighted to be sitting where he is. Asked about their strategies, both drivers looked at each other and chuckled, clearly unwilling to give anything away.
"Let the pressure ride with someone else," Johnson said.
"Put the pressure on Boyd," Chardon concurred.
As for the bizarre stable incident, Chardon said, "That's history now." He said he has no hard feelings, particularly to other competitors or the Games.
"I like America."