In an electrifying event at the ExCel Centre in London’s Docklands, Boyd Exell (AUS) blazed to victory on three occasions – but only just.
In the closest contest of the FEI Driving World Cup™ 2023-24 series so far, the reigning champion was pitched against his two old adversaries, Ijsbrand Chardon (NED) and Koos de Ronde (NED), all on career-best form.
By Saturday evening’s final drive-off, the top three were so finely tuned that they produced rounds which were only two seconds apart. But it was Boyd’s experienced combination of horses that was marginally faster, and he steered them through a clear course to finish on a time only score of 145.41.
Marking the three-quarter point of the series, the London leg is the sixth qualifying event and has an established extra “Extreme Driving” competition the day before the FEI World Cup. Using a different course, also designed by Jeroen Houterman (NED), it is a standalone class and one that gives a taster for what is to come. After two clear rounds, Boyd was the winner, with Koos second and Ijsbrand third.
The warm-up event means that by Friday’s opening World Cup competition, the horses are more attuned and although the course is different, the arena and ambience are familiar. In a nail-biting drive-off, it looked as if Ijsbrand was going to win as Boyd was down on the split time but spurred on by a cheering crowd, his horses found an extra, explosive gear and edged ahead by only 1.02 seconds.
By the third competition on Saturday evening, expectation was high for another tightly fought contest – which it was. The same three qualified for the drive-off and each driver managed to shave seconds off their already impressive times over the same course. And like the night before, it went down to the wire as last-to-go Boyd knew that he had only a tiny amount of wriggle room after both Dutchmen knocked a ball to add four seconds. Aware of their scorching speeds – Ijsbrand’s 146.99 and Koos’ 147.37 seconds – Boyd was pushed hard every step of the way.
Delighted with his performances in London, Ijsbrand said, “This is my first competition since Stuttgart (GER) and I had a really good second place. To keep up with the tempo of Boyd and Koos, I had a new horse for London and he’s not so experienced, but he was perfect and I am very, very happy with him. At this stage in the series, the level is really high and we have four or five people who are doing very well.”
Keeping the home crowd enthralled, wild card Daniel Naprous (GBR) ended his weekend in fourth. Feeling that there was room for improvement after his opening round on Thursday, he went out on a high note by producing a fast, clear round on Saturday to jump up the placings.
Afterwards, he said, “I am so proud of my horses today! To be on the coattails of these legends is a phenomenal feeling. I flew in from filming on Sunday and then we came to London, so they did really well. The sport is so great because after I struggled a bit on the first day, Boyd was gracious enough to give me a few tips and it was appreciated. Tonight, luck smiled on me and the balls stayed on top.”
Completing the London line up were Glenn Geerts (BEL), Mareike Harm (GER) and Georg von Stein (GER). Glenn’s best result was fourth on Thursday, a position also taken by Georg on Friday, while Mareike was sixth on both Friday and Saturday.
Ijsbrand took the maximum ten points for the rankings as Boyd was also a wild card so not eligible. The two titans are now in first and second place with only a point between them as Ijsbrand pushed his son Bram Chardon (NED) into third place.
The next leg is in Mechelen (BEL) after Christmas where Boyd and Bram will go head to head again as qualified drivers. They are joined by Michael Brauchle (GER) who will be hoping to repeat his Stockholm (SWE) success and Dries Degrieck (BEL) who shone in Geneva (SUI). Completing the qualified drivers line up is Jérôme Voutaz (SUI) with Glenn and Koos as the wild cards.
After the two most recent events, if Boyd and Bram maintain their form, it is going to be a very close call in Belgium as both will put maximum pressure on to unseat the other. As Boyd said, “I never count the titles because you are only as good as your last competition. Indoor driving’s quite hard on your confidence – if you have a great performance you just keep riding higher and higher, but if you start making mistakes and floundering, then it really pounds you!”
Written by Sarah Dance.