OCALA, Florida - From the poised and polished dressage that graced center stage on Thursday and Friday, drivers and their teams rolled into high gear as they took to the picturesque and expansive grounds at the Live Oak International for the marathon.
Strong out of the gate, Chester Weber and his team maintained their lead in the USEF National Four-In-Hand Championship, ending the day with a two-phase score of 149.47 penalties. Leading the Pair Horse Championship is Steve Wilson with 156.66 penalties. In the Pair Pony Championship, Katie Whaley leads with 140.83 penalties and Tracey Morgan leads the Single Pony Championship with 138.18.
Course designer Garbor Fintha's world-class seven obstacle design challenged teams at each turn, approach, and exit. The obstacles proved to be very technical as teams had open space for a quick approach to quickly collect their teams for a tight weave though questions at A, B and C followed by roll backs through D and E. There was little room for error.
Leading the Four-In-Hand Division, Weber kept his cool as temperatures started to rise as his division, last to go, took to the field. Weber, making a technical course look easy, piloted his team with efficiency and ease to maintain his lead at 149.47. Misdee Wrigley-Miller took an unfortunate turn at obstacle six adding time penalties and scoring 134.88 on the marathon. She was able to hold onto second place with a total score of 176.35.
"I was super happy to have my horses answer the questions. It was one of the most challenging tracks, even up from last year," said Weber.
The Pair Horse Championship is seeing a true competition unfold. Steve Wilson, who sat in second after dressage with a 55.04, produced an efficient marathon run passing the overnight leader, James Miller. Wilson will enter the final day of competition on a score of 156.66. Miller, who led after dressage, ran into some timing issues adding 120.52 penalties. He will enter the final phase in second on a score of 169.42.
"The course was the most difficult course in America. I found that wonderfully challenging," said Wilson. "To be able to drive that at home in the U.S. is wonderful as I plan to go to the World Championships this year. It was a beautiful course and very challenging."
In the FEI Pair Pony, Katie Whaley, the leader after dressage, experienced some issues at obstacle number six and wound up adding 91.04 to her dressage score of 49.79 for a total of 140.83. However, Whaley and her pair maintained their top position and will be heading into Sunday's competition still in first place. Putting the pressure on Whaley, Mary Phelps and her "gangster squad" made light work of the course only having one bobble at obstacle number five, giving Phelps a total score 159.01 after the marathon.
"The obstacles asked some pretty good questions and the course demanded a lot. The ponies listened and came back to me and answered the questions," said Whaley.
Leading the FEI Single Pony is Tracey Morgan with Fuego adding 89.59 penalties to their dressage score for a total of 138.18 penalties heading into Sunday's final test. Moving up the ranks after the marathon, Rebecca Gutierrez piloted Naria with skill around each obstacle moving them up from third to second position with a total score of 147.89.
"This marathon was absolutely international quality. I was thrilled to have a wonderful go with my pony," said Morgan. "Two obstacles that took my breath away were the Gulch, which was challenging, and I just loved is the fifth hazard. My navigator helped me out a lot and we went all out."
Combined driving concludes on Sunday starting at 8:30 a.m. with the cones test where four USEF National Champions will be crowned. General admission tickets are available online or at the gate for $10 per person, with proceeds going to Marion Therapeutic Riding Association. Children under 12 receive free admission. Parking for the event is free.
Live Oak International is also the last chance for show jumping riders to qualify to compete at the Longines FEI World Cup Final, March 29-April 2, in Omaha, Neb.In the last leg of the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping North American League, riders not yet qualified for the World Cup Final will be pulling out all the stops to win Sunday afternoon's $100,000 CSI-W3* Longines FEI World Cup Qualifier, presented by Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club.
Attendance at Live Oak International offers spectators a rare chance to visit the normally private Live Oak Plantation, known for its outstanding race horse breeding operation as well as its 1,000-head beef cattle operation. Now in its 26th year, the event counts among its competitors some of the world's leading drivers, riders, trainers, coaches and owners from over 20 countries in both disciplines.
For the non-horse enthusiast, shop the beautiful jewelry designs of Lugano Diamonds, or let Joan Pletcher show you the hottest real estate available in Ocala.
General admission tickets and week passes are all available online at https://liveoakinternational.com/shop/.