A new name was added to the FEI Driving World Cup™ hall of fame as Belgium’s Dries Degrieck took a career-best victory in front of a full house at the 26th Partner Pferd in Leipzig (GER). After a super second place late on Friday night in the opening competition, he and his horses went one better on Sunday to win competition two at the eighth and last leg of the 2023-24 series. The result gained him ten ranking points and guaranteed his place at the final in Bordeaux (FRA) in early February.
Everything came together for the 28-year-old Belgian farrier and his four KWPN horses. After a fast, clear first round on Friday, he was in the top three and gained a place in the drive-off, where he was joined by the reigning champion Boyd Exell (AUS) and previous champion Ijsbrand Chardon (NED). Keeping his cool against the two titans, Dries’s precise rein handling enabled him to steer accurate routes through the obstacles and cones, while he also gained valuable seconds on the longer, running sections in the early part of the course. With only a late ball to add to his quick time, he slotted into second behind Boyd.
But when the placings really mattered on Sunday, everything was in the Belgian’s favour as he produced another fast first round – only beaten by Bram Chardon (NED) on time – to be in the top three again. Disbelief prevailed as the usually indomitable Boyd Exell, who was last to go after an emphatic win on Friday night, knocked an element to add four seconds to his time, which dropped him into fourth place and took him out of drive-off contention. That meant that Dries and Bram were joined by Koos de Ronde (NED), who had been fourth on Friday.
In the final showdown, Koos entered the arena first and clocked 167.58 seconds, but had two knocks to add eight giving him a total of 175.58, which gave Dries and Bram a bit of space. In next, Dries’s powerful and fit bay horses flew round the course, leaving everything in place, to finish on a time-only score of 161.14.
Last in, Bram seemed to have put the disappointment of the error on Friday behind him, which kept him out of the drive off.
His attentive grey horses immediately found their stride as Bram ensured the lines round the elements were typically tight and he was impressive against the clock. But one knock added a costly four to his 157.97 seconds to put him only 0.83 behind Dries. All watching cheered as they acknowledged the brilliance of the Belgian and his well-matched team, who deserved their popular – and first – FEI Driving World Cup™ win.
The last leg is hailed as a dry run for the final, and at this stage in the series, the margins between the top competitors are small. Only 0.94 kept Boyd out of Sunday’s drive off, and Ijsbrand was a mere 1.04 behind him in fifth. But more than placings and ranking points, the drivers state that it’s an important indication of form, strength, and weakness, and preview of what might happen in Bordeaux.
As Bram remarked beforehand, there is very little opportunity to correct errors before the final, as by the time they get home, there is only a week before they pack up and travel to France.
Completing the Leipzig line up was wild card entry Mareike Harm (GER), who finished in sixth on Sunday, improving on her position after Friday, and fellow Germans Georg von Stein – who finished in seventh in both competitions – and Michael Brauchle, who although fast over the weekend, had too many balls down to be drive-off contention.
The results ratify the six drivers who have qualified for the final, and Boyd enters as the top ranked on a maximum of 30 points. Behind him are Bram, Ijsbrand, Dries, Michael, and Koos, and the ranking positions set the initial running order in Bordeaux.
After winning five of the seven legs he attended, the season’s results would suggest that Boyd may take an unprecedented 11th World Cup title. But if this result is anything to go by, all the drivers will be closely watching the speedy, focused Belgian farrier who has just ensured that he too is now in serious contention for a title.
The FEI Driving World Cup™ Final will take place at Bordeaux on Saturday 3 & Sunday 4 February 2024.
by Sarah Dance