As preparations for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy ramp up, all eyes are on this week’s CAI 3* at Live Oak in Ocala, Florida, from March 20 to 23. The event marks the halfway point in the selection trials for the U.S. driving team of Four-In-Hand drivers that will compete in Caen, France, from September 3 to 7. Two other U.S. selection trials for the Games have already taken place, both held in Ocala in February: the CAN Sunshine State and the CAN Kingdom of the Sun. After Live Oak, which is also the Four-in-Hand National Championships, two more selection trials remain for the U.S. team: the CAN Southern Pines at Southern Pines, North Carolina (April 11-13) and the CAI 3* at Bromont, Canada (June 12-15). For Normandy hopefuls from the United States, Live Oak rings in a key procedural date as well. Three weeks later, on April 15, the application fee for a place on the team jumps from $70 to $300, and the clock starts ticking down to the application cutoff date, two weeks before the FEI Nominated Entry deadline. So from now through early summer, the heat is on and will continue to increase for drivers who hope to make the grade.
Regardless of which country’s team a driver is applying for a spot on, FEI rules for the Four-In-Hand World Championships require that a competitor have obtained two qualifying scores no later than July 21. The official qualification period opened January 1, 2013, but one of the qualifying results must be achieved this year, between January 1 and July 21.
While a nation is free to impose more stringent standards in its selection process, minimum qualification criteria under FEI rules for the Games are: At two combined driving events, drivers must achieve a score of 65 points or less in the dressage test (test 8A or 11) and have successfully completed (without elimination, disqualification or retirement) all three competitions (dressage, cones and marathon) in their own class.
It won’t be surprising if a significant number of competitors this week at Live Oak elect to perform dressage test 11, which is the test that will be competed at the Games. Live Oak is the home farm of legendary U.S. combined driver Chester Weber, an odds-on favorite for Normandy – and the only U.S. driver to have competed in the Games driving test event last August in Caen, which he won. In a recent interview with HorsesDaily, Weber was reflective about the win. “When Americans are on top in driving, there is an element of surprise. On the other hand, Europeans have so many top competitors and so many competitions close together,” he said, that when they medal it almost seems a matter of course.
While that paradigm may appear at first glance to put American drivers at a disadvantage in the international arena, Weber has quite a different perspective. He firmly believes that the competition scene and long season in the United States “allows us to develop young horses here (for international competition). We have such a wonderful opportunity in the U.S. with our Florida shows. The climate allows us to compete year-round at top shows.” The locations of the U.S. driving trials for Normandy (three of five held in the Southeastern U.S.) bear witness to that, as do the fact that they are being held in late winter/early spring, months that can generally be counted on to preclude outdoor competition or training throughout much of Europe.
What’s in Store for Normandy?
Regardless of where one trains and competes to qualify for Normandy, it will all come down to what drivers encounter at the Prairie Racecourse (also referred to as the Hippodrome) in Caen this September. The race course is being adapted for driving at the Games, with para-dressage to also be held there. After last summer’s driving test event, organizers received overwhelmingly positive feedback from participating federations and competitors, including Weber. “I was very impressed with the facilities and the organization of these three days,” he said, adding that he particularly enjoyed the marathon. Weber described the course as “technical and fast.”
Richard Nicoll, designer of the 2010 and 2014 Games driving courses, agreed, adding, “The challenge with the course in Normandy is definitely technical, as everything – from the dressage arenas to the obstacles – is being built from scratch, including all the footing.” He 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 implementing his vision for Normandy, Nicoll will draw on his experience as an FEI course designer and technical delegate since the early 1980s. He has designed many acclaimed courses – among them three world championship courses — in England, Canada, Austria, Argentina, Australia, Ireland, Sweden and the United States. At the same time, he said, “I have to keep in mind that in Normandy 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 sport, so I need to try to make it not only challenging for the competitors but also exciting for the spectators.”
Drivers will find the conditions at Caen quite different from the 2010 Games in Lexington. New twists for 2014 include flatter terrain, which is predominant in Normandy, and sand footing placed on top of the grass. The new surface is reportedly more resistant than grass, regardless of the weather. And instead of the walk section, there will be a transition phase.
2014 Games driving manager Jean-Pierre Brisou noted that this will mark the first time ever in the World Equestrian Games that sand will be used for dressage, obstacle cone driving and the marathon obstacles zone. The goal, he said, is “to provide fair conditions of transition to each of the teams. 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.” 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.
In the final analysis, said Nicoll, “As long as everyone comes through it safely; the organizers and sponsors are happy; the spectators leave the event having enjoyed what they saw; and above all, that the competitors felt it was a good event and a good result, then the Games are a success.”