Drivers Test New Track at Florida Horse Park
By Shaneen Kohler

OCALA, Fla. (April 11, 2006) —

A new marathon course with untested hazards, a new ring, incorporation of a "theme-park," and jumpers, polo players and trail riders zigzagging around. Could be a recipe for a disaster.

But it wasn't a disaster. It was brilliant.

James Richards of Atlanta, Ga., an FEI-level four-in-hand competitor at the CAI-B Sunshine State Combined Driving Event, April 7-9, summed it up: "It was smart for the Florida Horse Park to have several disciplines at the same event. Not only did it bring in people who would not ordinarily attend an equine event, it was smart from the business angle." Making an event profitable, or even breaking even, is tough, especially for a new facility. But, with so many events and attractions taking place at the same time, there was bound to be something for everyone. "The Florida Horse Park is off to a great start," said Richards.

Carole Dailley winds around the boards at the Fritz and Phyllis Grupe Shady Oaks Farm windmill hazard.
Photo by Shaneen Kohler

Fellow Four-In-Hand competitor James Fairclough of Newton, N.J. felt the same way. "They have done a great job in a short period of time. The hazards are built well, especially the water complexes. The staff at the Florida Horse Park is trying hard and they have turned the Florida Horse Park into a wonderful facility." Unfortunately, Faiclough was not able to experience the new hazards, as he had to withdraw. Following Live Oak CDE in March he had surgery and is still on the mend. "I feel great, but doctor's orders. I should be fine in another two weeks."

As this was a selection trial for Four-In-Hands for the World Equestrian Games, Fairclough did have to take steps to ensure his withdrawal would not affect his ratings. Wendy Wares of the USEF explained that the selection process in subjective and not a points race. "James Fairclough will not be penalized because he withdrew from the marathon here. He notified the USEF of his plans to have surgery and the effect it might have on his competition here."

Coming in first in the Four-In-Hands was Chester Weber of Ocala, followed closely by Tucker Johnson of Hobe Sound, Fla. and James Richards in third.

Hazards are a Hoot!
"Whew, what a ride!" said James Richards' second navigator, Randell Skipper, after their marathon ride. "It was a great course."

Skipper was not the only one to feel that way. Sterling Graburn said he especially liked the Joan Pletcher Dunes. "It was a good one for my horse, who is big and powerful. It was fun, too. We motored right through there!" Graburn came in second in the FEI Single Horse division with Quincy, just behind Fred Merriam of Newfane, Va. This event served as the second of five selection trials for the Single Horse Championship being held in Italy in September.

Bill Hunt navigates the gates at the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association water hazard.
Photo by Shaneen Kohler

Miranda Cadwell said the course had "quality hazards" and was well built, although the first hazard gave her more trouble than she was anticipating. She said she tried to change her driving style for the better, but it backfired. So, for the rest of the hazards she went back to her "old" style and pulled off a score of 66.84 for her marathon, giving her the third lowest number of penalty points in the marathon division (behind Fred Merriam with 63.64 and Sterling Graburn with 64.84, both in FEI Single Horse).

Wendy Ying of Bonifay, Fla. had a bit of bad luck at the third hazard, but blamed herself. "I ran straight into a post and lost my navigator, Rhoda Icerman." Ying felts that the hazards were on the technical side and the footing was a little soft, "which causes the carriage to slide a bit" upping the probability for flips. "The events in Florida (Live Oak and Sunshine State) are some of the most challenging in the States due to the terrain," said Ying, who remained upbeat despite her run.

Carole Dailley of Canada felt the hazards were interesting. "There was a variety, both technical and open. The tracks were beautiful, too." She competed in FEI Single Horse with Sinatra, 7, an Oldenburg.

Joan Hunter of England, wife of course designer Barry Hunter, said the course was fun the watch, too. "It was interesting to watch the drivers on the cross-country course. Sitting at the water hazard, it looked like everyone took a different course because there were so many options."

Plenty of Options
"All the hazards drove beautifully and there were so many options. The course is wonderful," said Margy Cox of Morriston, Fla.

Margy Cox rounds the dune at the top
of the Joan Pletcher Dunes.
Photo by Shaneen Kohler

She admitted to being "concerned about the bridge, though..It looked scary." But, Cox's fears were unfounded, as she navigated her FEI Single Horse, Du Conteau La Lou Ceasar, through the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association water hazard with no hiccups. Of course, she did confess to "jumping" up the ramp (bridge), which solved any issues her horse might have had with its grip. Plus, she said it helped that the wooden planks overlapped, so the horses wouldn't slide down.

Cox is one of seven drivers who got to experience parts of the course before it was even completed. She took part in a two-week camp held by Chester Weber and Boyd Exell at the Florida Horse Park in February. "Only a couple of the hazards were complete at the time," she said, but it helped give her a feel for what type of course it was going to be. This is only her second season at the FEI level, but she is optimistic about her horse's abilities. She said she topped Sterling Graburn "one of the best drivers," twice this year and is devoting a lot of time to practice, now that she and her husband and navigator John have sold their business. The founders of Soapy Pony, the Coxes now live in Florida and are going full speed ahead with their driving aspirations.

"We have good days and bad days. We just hope the good days come on the weekends," said John with a chuckle.

Intermediates are First on Course
Bill and Marilyn Hunt of Ocala, Fla. competed their Haflinger, Andre, in the Intermediate Single Pony division at the Sunshine State CDE. Drivers for 10 years and making their first foray into the Intermediate level this year, the Hunts are finding out just how much fun and how much work it can be to compete at this level. However, they were full of praise concerning the park and the course.

Philip Needs heads toward the last hazard on the course, the Black Prong Equestrian Center sunken road.
Photo by Shaneen Kohler

"The course was set-up very well for the first year," said Bill, a physician when he is not driving. "There is an incredible amount of work to build the hazards and build them appropriately, including finding people who can build them."

While they were not the first to hit the course, that honor going to Philip Needs of Sarasota, Fla. in the Intermediate Pony division, they were part of the first group.

They found the Joan Pletcher Dunes as being the "most fun" of all the hazards. "We cantered through almost the whole thing," said Marilyn, a full-time nurse and a part-time navigator. The water hazard was a little trickier because the water was deeper than water at other events, said Bill. That probably caused a lot of the drivers to slow their speeds though there, in addition to the wooden ramp, which got slipperier as the day wore on. "The wooden ramps, they get slippery when wet," explained Bill, even though there were overlapping planks to help the horses. "We had never been down that type of ramp before and we were concerned about the slipperiness and the horses catching their toes," said Bill. However, they got through without any trouble and commended the footing under the water as being solid, which helped.

It was the memorizing the unfamiliar course that had them working the hardest. "Compared to a natural hazard, the board hazards are harder to remember. In a natural hazard, you might have a rock, tree and a hill to navigate, whereas a constructed hazard is more like a maze," said Bill, adding that the board hazards are usually tighter, too.

Both felt that the course tested the endurance of the horses. "Some of the horses were really tired already by the hazard stage," said Bill. "They had been out for 45 minutes going through a lot of deep sand before even getting to the hazards."

The first portion of the marathon also went by Dozer Day, a 15-acre temporary theme park filled with heavy equipment, all in motion. "Dozens of pieces of heavy equipment were all being operated," said Bill. "That presented some interesting challenges."

Accolades from USEF
The U.S. Equestrian Federation Director of Driving, Wendy Wares, was on-site for the international driving event at the Florida Horse Park, and was full of praise concerning the event and the site.

"It is a marvelous facility. Plus, the combining of the various disciplines and attractions was a great idea. It means more exposure for each sport and attracts non-horse people, as well," said Wares. It was Wares first time at the park for an event, though she did stop by to look at the facility when she was in the area for Live Oak CDE.

"The whole Ocala area is so horse-oriented," said Wares. "It was great to see other riders coming through the park as the events were taking place. There were some trail riders on their Paso Finos from Continental Acres, as well as an organized trail ride that started at neighboring Ocala Foxtrotter Ranch."

Angel Negron, 3, of Ocala, Fla. gets to try out some heavy equipment with the help of Jesse Yarbrough at Dozer Day at the Florida Horse Park.
Photo by Shaneen Kohler


For details on events at the Florida Horse Park, visit or call (352) 307-6799.



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