US Reining Team Wins WEG Gold, Four-in-Hand Continues Competition

More than 38,000 fans of reining and driving descended on the 2006 World Equestrian Games on Friday to watch the exciting marathon phase of four-in-hand driving and the Team medal competition in the Western discipline of reining. It was a Gold-medal day for Team USA's reiners, while three American drivers took to the challenge of the expansive and difficult cross-country and hazards phase.

Another Team Medal

Some would say we saved the best for last, and the raucous reining fans would certainly agree. With the sun shining brightly for the first full day of these World Equestrian Games, spirits were high as were hopes for the U.S. keeping their Team Gold. Reining makes its second appearance at the WEG, after a Gold-medal win for the U.S. in Jerez, Spain, in 2002. Today's Gold medal victory showed the world that the U.S. still proves to be the team to beat, scoring 664.5. All four U.S. riders will return Sunday for the individual competition.

Lots of yelling, hooting and hollering led the way for America's first rider, Dell Hendricks, of Tioga, TX, who took to the arena with Starbucks Sidekick, a six-year-old Quarter Horse stallion, owned by Adair Reiners, LLC. Hendricks and Sidekick took the lead with a score of 219. Just four riders later, Canadian Lance Griffin repeated Hendricks' score.

"Yeah, I don't like to hold back," said Hendricks. "I only watched two horses before I started, and then I got on. They picked me to go first, because they knew I was just going to go hard and hope that we could just put up a big score and make everybody chase us.

Hendricks has a special bond with his gray partner; Sidekick's grandmother took Hendricks to his first career reining win. He had nothing but praise for his mount today.

"He was pretty good today," he said. "He threw a couple things at me that kind of surprised me, but an older horse will do that to you. I was really tickled with him. He went in there and turned around really good; I was really happy with that. He circled to the right nice. It's a lot of fun in there when they're screaming that loud."

Aaron Ralston, of Silt, CO, and his 12-year-old Quarter Horse stallion, Smart Paul Olena were the next Americans to go and retook the lead with a score of 223 and sliding stops that had the crowd holding their breath and then screaming for more. However, there was a tense moment for the crowd when Paul slowed to a lope for his second small circle that was almost a halt. However, Paul did not falter, earning the American's highest score.

"It is incredible," Ralston said. "It is amazing the support even from country to country. Everybody was yelling in there, and I know they're not all from the U.S. It's incredible that everybody is so enthusiastic. I didn't know what to expect. This is my first trip to Europe, but it's been a great experience all the way around."

The horse he calls Paul, has been a member of the family since wife Meg purchased him a few years ago. They purchased him from a family that had a ranch on a mountain where Paul was turned out for four to five years with about 30 to 40 broodmares and also did some ranch work. Ralston tried to get some of his clients to buy him, but no one wanted to take a chance on a horse that had been out of commission for so long.

"He's almost twice as old as all the other horses on our team," he said. "I think that's a big reason he's as good as he is, because he had four or five years to go and live on the mountain and then came back as a more mature horse."

When asked about his favorite part of the test, Ralston was quick to respond, "He's an incredible stopper," he said. "I have so much confidence in him, because he is so consistent; he's so powerful. It's a really good feeling that at the end of the pattern, you know that if something went wrong, you've still got the stop."

Third up for the U.S. in the team competition was reining legend Tim McQuay of Tioga, TX, riding Mister Nicadual, a six-year-old Quarter Horse stallion, owned by Jerry Kimmel. McQuay did not fail to impress, and his score reflected that--a 222.5, putting the U.S. in a nice spot for a team medal.

"He was a little tight on his spins, and I probably was too," said McQuay. "I just got a little anxious there. But for the rest of it he said, 'just get out of my way, let's go.' It's a great feeling, and the atmosphere at this horse show is just--the whole USA is here and saying we want to win. We want to show them we are proud of ourselves."

Despite the screaming crowds, McQuay praised Mr. Nicadual for always knowing his job. McQuay thanked his horse and mentioned what a special mount you have to have in this sport to be successful.

"Honestly I can't wait until we have this in Kentucky," he said. "The U.S. doesn't get to see this. The European people are so involved. They just love horses. It seems like no matter what event, they're there watching us and cheering. They love to see horses do anything."

When asked about whether or not he thinks his horse has anything left for the final, McQuay simply stated, "I think we can beat that."

The final U.S. rider was Matt Mills, who posted a career-high 231.5 at the selection trials, was today's team anchor. Mills is the team's youngest member at 27. Ironically, he first apprenticed for teammate Hendricks, who taught him much of what he knows. Mills and Easy Otie Whiz, a seven-year-old Quarter Horse stallion, owned by Out West Stallion Station and Bobbie Cook, posted a score of 217.5 which the crowd was not happy about.

"Overall I was happy with the way my horse showed," Mills said. "He handled the crowd well. The first half of the pattern felt exactly the way I wanted it to. I don't think I could have done a whole lot better there just running and stopping, he just wasn't really comfortable with the ground. The first stop--he approached it really nice and actually tried a little too hard. The ground was maybe a little slick for him."

Everyone competed today where the team honors were decided, with the top 20 riders returning on Sunday for the individual competition. In today's competition, reiners performed pattern eight, and the three highest scores were taken into account for the final team rankings. The top 20 individuals will move forward to Sunday's individual competition where they will perform pattern nine.

Alternate Tom McCutcheon also made the trip to support his team. McCutcheon was a member of the first WEG Gold medal-winning reining team and also the Individual Silver medalist. Another regular from the 2002 WEG was reining team chef d'equipe Jeff Petska, who was very complimentary of his team.

"I really enjoy seeing the guys working together," said Petska. "The camaraderie, how they help each other, all the input they have--because when we select our team, these guys become a family, and obviously we have an individual competition on Sunday, but we come over her and our first priority is to win the Team Gold. Obviously you can see by the smiles on their faces that it's very rewarding."

The 2002 FEI World Equestrian Games were the debut for reining, and the sport continues to be the fastest growing discipline recognized by the FEI. This year, 68 reiners from 21 countries are vying for the highly sought-after medals, of which the U.S. took three in 2002, a Team Gold, Individual Gold and Individual Silver. At reining's debut four years ago, there where 11 countries represented, nine with full teams.

Competing against the U.S. with today with full teams were Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Great Britain, Germany, Israel, Italy, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Slovakia and Sweden. Countries with individuals competing are Denmark, The Dominican Republic, Hungary (2), Mexico, Norway (2) and Poland (2).

Putting in the top score of the day--a 225.5--was Canadian, Duane Latimer, former trainer of Mills' horse Easy Otie Whiz. Latimer was also a member of the Silver medal winning Canadian team whose final score was 664. Earning the Bronze medal today with a score of 656 was the Italian team. After the victory gallop, as a grand finale, the Americans performed spins in unison which made the crowd go wild.

The jog was held Thursday and two of the horses held for re-inspection did not pass, one from Germany and one from Denmark. Today was also an unlucky day for the Dominican Republic's sole rider who broke pattern, touched both reins and took the wrong lead, giving him a score of 0. Five more riders zeroed out by the end of the competition, one from Slovakia, Brazil, Belgium, Israel and Canada.

Four-in-Hand Driving

The marathon phase stood in front of 49 international drivers and their four-in-hand teams on Friday at the 2006 WEG and across the long and tiring course there were triumphs and trip-ups. It was a big course, even thought it didn't present itself to be so according to some of the drivers who traveled it. It was a constant up-and-down track, characterized by those who drove it as a real championships course. And rightfully so, as many drivers-in-the-know has said this is going to be one of the closet and most highly contested world championships to be seen. And with no less than six previous Gold medalists in the running, it is turning out to be just that with stiff competition from Germany's Michael Freund and France's Ysbrand Chardon.

For a four-in-hand driver, there is a lot going on. First there is the team of four horses, plus what might look like miles of reins to handle. In fact, there is more than 25 feet of length between the driver and his lead pair of horses. Add to that the extra passengers in the form of one to two on-board grooms and you can easily see that there are plenty of things to keep a driver busy.

Leading the Americans going into the marathon phase was Florida's Chester Weber and his team. Their effort across the eight hazards presented them with a total score of 123.65, a 20th place finish for the day.

Asked if this was the marathon result he wanted, Weber was candid. "Not really," he said. Weber said he made a clear driving mistake in the water, and made an extra loop. "We're going to fight hard to stay in the top five," he said. He had to change one of his horses out that he was going to use today that seemed a little sore yesterday. He feels that this affected his trip through the tough marathon.

Second up for Team USA was another Floridian, Tucker Johnson and his team of horses. After completing their marathon, they ended their test with a score of 122.15 seat them at 18th place going into the final day of driving - the cones.

Asked if his horses drove the way he thought they would, Tucker was more upbeat. "They did. My left leader was a little stronger in the hand than my right leader," he said. "I was trying to build the course up, hazard by hazard. I was slower than I would have liked to have had, but it was what I could handle with my team."

The team came in at a conservative pace, but built momentum, noting that it is harder for the horses to move through water than on the land. "They went, actually, better than I expected them to. I was really anticipating problems, and then I saw the clock coming out, I was like, 'I'd like to take that back!'" said Johnson.

At #6, he had a hang-up where the team got split up on a panel and precious time was spent getting out of a tricky situation. "Again, one leader was more forward than another, puts them in a different position," he said. "I'm not sure exactly what happened." The team did recover well, though.

This was a bit of a newer team that Johnson had put together, and he did say that he was happy with their efforts, but there was one surprise. "I'm surprised they didn't crash badly," he said jokingly. "Every marathon I've driven this year, I've had terrible crashes.

Third around the test for Team USA was James Fairclough.

"I thought they did a tremendous job," he said of his young team. "There's a lot of atmosphere out there and the footing is still heavy, yet it was still everything I asked for."

Fairclough commented on what was observed by some "on the edge" during the marathon phase. "I don't drive that way, I like to see my horses at the finish line," he said. "I like to be really smooth...and I think my horses did really, really well. I went a little lighter in places to keep the momentum going because if you slow down you have to get all that energy going again."

When finished with his marathon, Fairclough stood with a score of 123.77 in 21st place.

Team Standings

Germany leads the four-in-hand drivers at Aachen with a composite score of 311.84. In second place is The Netherlands with a score of 315.03. Right behind them is Belgium standing on 315.95. Hungary is at fourth place with 322.87 and Team USA stands at fifth place on a score of 327.84.

Unexpected Course Happenings

Not everyone had a good trip through the hazards today, in particular, a member of Team Ireland and Team Netherlands Antilles.

Shortly after entering the first of eight obstacles on the course (the WEG 2006 obstacle), Barry Capstick from Ireland got his carriage stuck while making a sharp turn. Maneuvering the team of horses back and forth did no good for the driver. Quickly, the carriage overturned, pinning the driver on a corner post. Capstick was bruised and none of his horses were seriously injured.

The final phase of the World Championship for four-in-hand driving ends on Saturday with the exciting cones phase

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