What could top the spectacular driving world championships that took place at the Kentucky Horse Park during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010? While Lexington will be a hard act to follow, organizers of the driving competition for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy seized upon their mission in 2009 and haven’t looked back.
After a successful test event last August in Caen, all signs are pointing toward an exciting yet very different experience from 2010 for competitors and spectators alike.
A recent tour of the driving venue in France and interviews with the organizers offer an insider’s preview of what can be expected when the world championships take place September 4-7 in Caen at the Prairie Racecourse (also referred to as the Hippodrome). The race course is being adapted for driving at the Games, with para-dressage to also be held there on a different date.
Games driving manager Jean-Pierre Brisou expressed enthusiasm about the proximity of the driving venue, as well as its easy access and good viewing opportunities for spectators.
While shuttles, buses and onsite parking were readily available at the 2010 Games, the Lexington event was located at the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park amongst rolling greenery a short drive from downtown Lexington. This time, in contrast, the driving will take place on a relatively flat parcel smack in the center of the city of Caen.
“If you want to see driving, you will not need to rent a car – everything is so close!” said Brisou. In particular, he noted, many hotels and public transportation options are within walking distance of the venue, and buses and tramways are easy to use.
The driving event will likely catch the attention of curious locals as they drive along the adjacent parkway or stroll by on the sidewalk, which are so close to the race track that you can almost touch it. Residents and tourists there are accustomed to seeing a much different type of driving – trotter races – on the site.
Covered seating for 16,000 spectators will be available in the stadium.
Drivers will find the conditions at Caen quite different from the 2010 Games. The Kentucky Horse Park was created to host large-scale equestrian sporting events (other than racing) and was easy to configure for driving and all the other disciplines. The race course at Caen, however, poses special challenges, which have required major changes to accommodate the unique needs of driving.
New twists for 2014 include flatter terrain, which is predominant in Normandy, and sand footing on top of the grass. The new surface is said to be more resistant than grass, regardless of the weather. And instead of the walk section, there will be a transition phase.
The innovations for 2014 were given a dry run at the test event in August, which was universally deemed a success.
"The goal was to test the teams and the technical choices in full-scale on the site that will host the 2014 events,” said Brisou. He emphasized that for the first time ever in the World Equestrian Games, sand will be used for dressage, obstacle cone driving and the marathon obstacles zone “in order to provide fair conditions of transition to each of the teams.”
The arena was set up in mid-May by teams from Normandie Drainage (an equestrian facilities constructor) and Eiffage (the public works specialist). The sand they used was locally sourced from the Mouen quarries in the Calvados area. The footing was pre-tested in June using a carriage from Le Pin National Stud and another driven by French team member Fabrice Martin.
According to Hélène Tottoli, the Organizing Committee’s riding surfaces expert, “It all came down to seeing how we can optimize the horses’ skills on this sandy footing. The surface itself is composed of two layers. Only the upper layer is modified during the test. Compacting and watering allows us to obtain the optimum conditions so that the horses are able to achieve their best performance.”
Said Brisou: “It is extremely important for the drivers to be completely satisfied with everything and for their horses to feel at ease on this particular surface. Sand has a real advantage, as we can guarantee the same type of footing for all the competitors; something which is impossible with grass.”
After the test event, organizers received positive feedback from participating federations and competitors. Foremost among the latter was Chester Weber, who won the test event. “I was very impressed with the facilities and the organization of these three days,” he said, adding that he enjoyed the marathon. Weber described the course as “technical and fast.”
Richard Nicoll, designer of the 2010 and 2014 driving courses, agreed. “The challenge with the course in Normandy is definitely technical, as everything – from the dressage arenas to the obstacles – is built from scratch, including all the footing.”
Nicoll said the course will have eight obstacles, as it did in Lexington. Two will be water obstacles, and the rest will be built with wood in the usual styles of marathon obstacles. “The water obstacles have some similarities (to prior courses he has built), but of course they are all different because of the location and the footing. One of the obstacles will definitely have a Normandy theme.”
In designing the course, he said, “I have to keep in mind that we will probably get one of the largest audiences for driving in many years. Many of those watching both onsite and on television will never have seen our driving sport, so I need to try to make it not only challenging for the competitors but also exciting for the spectators. You always hope that there will be some of the spectators who leave going away saying, ‘I’d would like to know more about this sport’ and maybe get into it themselves.”
For additional information on the 2014 Games: http://www.fei.org/fei/events/fei-weg