By Marcella Peyre-Ferry
The primary peril at the 23rd Laurels at Landhope International Combined Driving Event and Autumn Celebration, September 11-13, was not the high profile water hazard but the mud. Torrential rains that soaked the Chester County, PA site from before the start through Saturday morning turned the 44 acre showgrounds into a sea of deep, slippery mud. The difficult conditions were potentially dangerous to horses pointed at the national championships in Lexington, KY, just a month away, and more than half the original field of advanced four-in-hands chose not to continue after the dressage phase, held Friday, September 11.
James Fairclough had a comfortable lead going into the cones phase, and retained it to win the Advanced Four-in-Hand class. Faced with torrential rains and deep mud for dressage and the marathon, Fairclough was one of only four entries that completed all three phases out of eleven starters in the class.
Fairclough had been second behind Chester Weber, who had a large lead after a rain soaked day of dressage, but Weber opted to withdraw rather than use his horses on the marathon in deep mud. Of the four-in-hands, only David Saunders driving Alan and Maureen Aulson's Morgan team, and the two Canadian entries - Eugen Hug and Deb Laderoute – tried the marathon with Fairclough.
Drivers who had not already qualified for the WEG were looking for a score of 70 or less in Dressage, but that was hard to come by, particularly with the rain and mud. Gavin Robson, who had a dressage score that would have put him in second place, was eliminated following his test for a wheel measurement that was 2 cm under the minimum allowed. Robson drove a Dutch harness horse team for owner Larry Denny, and represented Australia in international competition.
Show organizers made many changes to the original courses in efforts to compensate for the exceptionally deep mud and rain, including moving one dressage arena after pairs so that the pony entries would have fresher footing. Drivers from across the United States, as well as two Canadian entries and an Australian took part in the event, which is a qualifying event for the 2010 WEG and a selection trial for the United States team.
Almost all of the Preliminary and Intermediate entries were able to handle the marathon course, but the four-in hand entries faced larger issues with the weight of their vehicles, heading into the national championships in Lexington, KY just a month away.
Planning to retire his horses if the mud was too much for them, Fairclough approached Saturday's marathon as a schooling event, yet found himself with a lead of nearly twenty points going into the cones. He remained careful in his approach to the cones course. "There wasn't much warm up area, and I didn't want to warm up much," he said. "I've learned over the years anything can happen."
Two of Fairclough's horses are relatively new to the team and had only done two marathons with him, so he wanted to see how they would go. Because of the heavy going, he was prepared to drop out of the marathon if his horses got tired, but they didn't. "Whatever they gave me was fine. It was a school," he said.
Fairclough, who has extensive European experience, is not new to driving in the rain, but he noted that there, the rings usually have a sand base so the vehicles don't sink as far.
"In the one corner it had to be ten inches deep," he said following his dressage test. The test required a shoulder in, which was made difficult by the conditions, as was the rein back. "In the back I got a foot and a half, maybe two, and I was lucky," he said.
The Morgan team Saunders was driving were the smallest horses entered in the division, but they were up to the challenge of the deep footing, moving into second place behind Fairclough after the marathon with a two-day total score of 156.77. "They're typical Morgans. The more work you throw at them the more they give you," Saunders said.
Normally, the dressage area is converted to part of the cones course, but it was so heavily damaged by the mud that the course was greatly condensed. "It was very tight for a team," Fairclough said, noting that he trotted the entire course. "I didn't try to gallop or turnaround (tight).
Other Advanced level winners were Rochelle Temple -single pony, Jennifer Matheson - pony pair, Lisa Stroud - pony multiples, Lisa Singer – pair horses, and Robin Groves – single horse.
In spite of the adverse conditions, The Laurels drew spectators in the rain, and an even bigger crowd on Sunday when the sun brightened the day. In addition to the driving competition, visitors had a chance to enjoy terrier races, antique cars, live music, and activities for children. New to the event this year was a popular juried art show and sale featuring 80 pieces by talented local artists.
Proceeds from the event raise funds for the Brandywine Conservancy and Cheshire Hunt Conservancy, which preserve open space and support the Brandywine River Museum, CC2020, and also The Large Animal Protection Society and New Bolton Center, which improve the lives of horses.