GEORGETOWN — A Scott County equestrian hopes to be the first Kentuckian — and the first American — to take gold in an international championship for single-horse carriage driving.
Earlier this month, Sterling Graburn and 11-year-old Dutch Harness horse Ulano won the National Championship in single driving at The Southern Pines Combined Driving Event in North Carolina.
That makes Graburn a top candidate to be named to the U.S. team to compete in the 2012 Singles World Driving Championships in Lezirias, Portugal in September. The team won't be officially named until August.
Graburn, 49, is the only Kentuckian in the running for the position on the U.S. singles team. He is now looking for additional sponsors to help with the cost of training and moving Ulano and equipment to Europe, where "Team Sterling" must perform in two competitions in the Netherlands before the championships begin in Portugal.Just to fly the horse and equipment to Europe and back again will cost about $20,000, Graburn said.
"And then there's hotels and transportation, and then we have to get from Amsterdam to Portugal," Graburn said. "We've estimated that to finish the season out, we need about $45,000 total."
A fund-raising event was held at Spindletop Hall, and Graburn's teamsterlingdriving.com Web site includes a page soliciting financial support.
Ultimately, the support goes toward Graburn's effort to accomplish something that is special to him.
"It was always my dream as a little kid to go to the Olympics as a three-day rider. And then in my mid- to late-teens, I started driving," he said. "So my goal shifted and my focus was on driving. The pinnacle of combined driving is the World Championships. The U.S. team has a shot at a medal. I'd like to think I have a shot at an individual medal."
Graburn is no stranger to success. In 2006, he competed in the World Singles Championships in Italy. He won the National Championship in single driving in 2008, but had no money to go to the World Driving Championships in Jarantow, Poland.
Driving is based on the Olympic sport called "eventing" but with a carriage behind the horse. As in eventing, teams are required to complete three phases of competition: driven dressage, marathon and cones.
The three competitions are designed to test the responsiveness, agility, fitness and stamina of the horse, and the judgment, accuracy and capability of the driver. Teams are assessed penalties for mistakes, so the lowest score wins. In the marathon and cones competitions, the time it takes each team to finish the course also factors into the scoring.
Visitors to the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park might remember "four-in-hands" driving which involves four horses, a driver, navigator and a groom on each team. The Lexington games did not have singles driving, primarily because it would have brought many more animals and people to the already-crowded park.
Bred in the Netherlands and once owned by the Amish in the United States, Ulano is owned by Larry and Marilyn Denny of Lebanon, Ohio. Ulano was the left-side leader of the four-horse team driven by Australian native Gavin Robson in the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
"He's got a lot of competition experience, but it was in a bigger group," Graburn said. "He had not competed as a single; he had done it as a pair and in the four-in-hand. So he had to get a little bit used to being the only one out there. And there still are times when I catch him looking around like, 'Guys, where are you?'"
With his four white socks and white on his face, Ulano has "all this presence. We say he has 'a lot of chrome,'" Graburn said. "There was an article in Dressage Daily, which is one of the equestrian e-zines, that said when he comes in the ring, people just go 'Oooh!""
But aside from his striking looks, Ulano is a competitor, Graburn said. "He's got this amazing balance and this amazing movement, and that makes it easier in the dressage phase. It makes it easier to get a really good score."
Competing in the world championships will bring additional notoriety to Gayla Driving Center, a 700-acre farm north of Georgetown, where Graburn is head trainer. The center offers instruction in pleasure or competitive carriage driving, and hosts various competitive and non-competitive driving events.
Gail Austin, owner of Gayla, said she has enough depth among her staff to keep the driving center going while Graburn is away.
"I think it's exciting," Austin said. "This is his dream, and the best I can do is go along with it."
Debbie Banfield, a manager at Gayla, said she thinks Graburn and Ulano are "unstoppable."
"The thing about Sterling, he's not only a great driver, he's also a fierce competitor," Banfield said. "When you have that kind of mentality, you cannot be intimidated by anybody. And that's the kind of adrenaline you need to be successful at that level."