Dominating from start to finish, reigning World Champion Martin Hölle (HUN) left no doubt that the FEI Driving World Championship 2023 Pairs title was going to be his for the 4th consecutive time in France. And as a team, the Hungarians left no doubt that they were going to win their 6th consecutive and record breaking 10th title, one they first won 1989.
Towards the end of two days of Dressage on Friday afternoon, a hush descended on the crowd as Martin entered the arena and presented a sublime test to score 36.92. His stunning grey KWPN gelding, Eppie, who is now 14 and has been the secret to much of Martin’s success, was paired with the black KWPN nine-year-old Juventus.
The closest rival was Franck Grimonprez (FRA), for the host nation, who drove a fine test to finish second on 41.25; in 3rd was Martin’s teammate Kristóf Osztertág (HUN) with 48.46. Germany’s Anna Sandmann, recently a member of the silver medal team at the European Four-in-Hand Championship in Exloo (NED), produced an on-form test to finish 4th on 48.82.
The Marathon had the new format warm-up Section A followed by Section B with eight obstacles designed by Hungarian Gabor Fintha, who also designed the course for the FEI Driving World Cup™ Final earlier in the year in Bordeaux (FRA). There were options for both tight and longer routes, but the presence of plenty of penalty balls proved to be expensive for some athletes.
Throughout the day, fans gathered round the corralled enclosures surrounding each obstacle, especially the two waters at numbers five and six, set against the backdrop of the iconic Chateau.
Most athletes take three horses to a pairs competition so to use different combinations for the phases is normal. Martin gave Eppie a day off on Saturday and used a new horse he had purchased at the start of the summer from Dutch driver Theo Timmerman after being impressed with its Marathon performance.
To use such a new horse at a World Championship is a gamble, and Martin had only driven King’s Gambit at two events leading up to the Worlds. However, the 13-year old-paired well with Juventus and they flew through the obstacles, clocking up some of the fastest times of the day, ending in 3rd place on 101.03, a score which also counted towards team success.
Beating him on the Marathon were his teammate György Fekete Jr. (HUN) with 100.90 and Marcel Luder (SUI) who won the phase with the only sub-100 total of the day of 99.14. Driving his Swiss Freiburger horses, Marcel impressed throughout the event and kept his cool to also win the Cones on Sunday, which sealed his first individual silver medal.
With all attention on Hungary for the golds, as the Swiss squad arrived in Le Pin the word was that they were going to be particularly strong on the Marathon phase. Their veteran team member, Werner Ulrich, who also drives a Four-in-Hand, has been a multiple medallist for nearly 30 years and was joined on the team by his son Stefan.
Like Marcel, the father and son drove consistently well over the three phases, and they all finished in the top ten to take team silver medal. It was the first time the Swiss had won a team medal since their bronze in Poznan (POL) in 1995.
The Dutch had set their sights on a podium place in Le Pin and while it wasn’t to be for the team as they ended in 4th, Erik Evers (NED) sealed his individual bronze by finishing 2nd in the Cones behind Marcel’s winning 0.37 score.
Sitting in 8th place after the first two phases, Erik drove a superb round with only 2.39 time penalties and could sit back and watch as those after him amassed the faults, while he climbed up the order.
Going into the final phase, the French team were in silver position with Frank Dutilloy also in silver individually, keeping hopes alive after Franck Grimonprez’s disappointing Marathon. However, the pressure told as he clocked up the penalties during the Cones to slip down the ranks, as did Australia’s Tor Van Den Berge who was lying in bronze after the Marathon.
The Germans held their heads high by taking team bronze and fending off the Dutch and French. Despite coming into the Cones with chances of individual medals, they didn’t produce the low-fault rounds that were needed.
There were no double clears as the repeated turns throughout the course meant that if the pace was picked up to get near to the time, there was more risk of the balls rolling. In spite of the strong Swiss challenge, they were held at bay by the individual brilliance of Martin and the flair of the Hungarians on the Marathon, a phase they have long specialised in with Horse Pairs.
It was a triumphant event at the revamped Haras du Pin. The facilities, in particular the 300 stables which housed the 270 horses during the event, were spectacular. The surface for the Dressage and Cones in the main sand arena was ideal, as it was in the warm-up zones away from the main competition. The beautiful Parc du Hautbois provided a bucolic setting and the grass held up well during the Marathon for the 91 athletes from 25 nations who gathered for a world class event in Normandy.