Prevailing through the highs and lows in the sport of Combined Driving is part of the game and Suzy Stafford puts it in perspective. The picturesque grounds of the Weber family's Live Oak Plantation provide a stunning backdrop for both the thrill of triumph and the bitter sting of disappointment as top drivers annually gather to contest the world-renowned Live Oak International CAI2*, held March 9-12, 2017 in Ocala, Fla. As competition got underway for this year's exciting edition, hopes ran high for former World Champion and U.S. Team Driver Suzy Stafford of Wilmington, Del. to earn a fourth straight Single Horse division title with her charismatic Morgan mare PVF Peace of Mind, better known to her fans as "Hunny".
The pair's quest certainly got off on the right foot with an exquisite dressage test, earning the unanimous favor of the judges for a score of 42.78 to rocket to the top of the leaderboard by more than 14 points. "My dressage test felt great, and Hunny was definitely 'on' that day," said Stafford. "She had the perfect amount of presence, drivability and power to put in one of her best tests. We had one mistake in the walk with a miscommunication between us but the rest felt amazing. The Live Oak arena is damn near perfect: green as green, the footing is just right, it's beautifully decorated, the atmosphere is electric, and of course everything is seamlessly run. What a pleasure to show there."
An impressive crowd gathered across Live Oak's sprawling grounds on a brilliantly sunny Saturday morning as Stafford and Hunny tackled the formidable marathon track. "I loved this year's marathon course," Stafford explained. "It has been a long time since I have seen a designer give so many competitive options in the obstacles, and course designer Gabor Fintha made winning the marathon about picking the best routes. I love that! At this level we all go at top speed but strategic course route planning was the difference between first and second at this show, and I was delighted to have a great go with Hunny." Stafford's strategies paid off as the pair earned the fastest or second-fastest time in six of the seven obstacles, easily maintaining their overall divisional lead going into the final day of competition.
Even with a commanding double-digit lead, Stafford was unfortunately about to experience first-hand the meaning behind the saying, "It ain't over till it's over." As the final driver in the Single Horse division to trot into the lavish Live Oak arena, Stafford had watched her competitors struggle with the deceptively-challenging cones course, giving her a comfortable margin of five balls in hand to stay in the lead and win a fourth-straight title. But near-disaster struck just meters away from victoriously crossing the finish line. "At some point during our round, the bit of the reins slipped off my wrist without my noticing and was dangling, so as we turned to approach the final set of cones the extra rein got caught around the left front hub of the carriage. As the wheel turned the rein wrapped tighter and tighter around the hub until finally breaking near the bit."
As the rein snapped, Stafford's experience and composure as well as Hunny's trust in her driver kicked into gear as Stafford calmly pulled her partner into a small circle with the remaining rein, and onlookers stepped in to help. "It was a freak accident that could have ended in a horrific wreck, and I was lucky, very lucky!" noted Stafford. "Was I heartbroken? No. Was I disappointed? Of course. But most of all I am thankful: thankful for my wonderful horse listening to me when it really counted, thankful for my groom acting quickly, thankful for the team coach Thorsten Zarembowicz and others for being observant and quick on their feet to come and help me. It certainly wasn't the way I wanted the show to end for me and Hunny, but ultimately I went home feeling good about our performance and thanking my lucky stars that we'll be back to drive another day."