James Fairclough returns to Gladstone as the defending Four-In-Hand Champion, but with a new team. One of the United States’ top drivers, he has represented this country at Four-In-Hand and Pairs Championships since 1980, and has won numerous USET Championships in both divisions. He was a member of the Gold Medal Team at the 1991 World Pairs Championship in Zwettl, Austria, where he was the highest-placed American, finishing fourth. Fairclough and his wife Robin, a noted hunter/jumper trainer, own and operate Top Brass Farm in Newton, New Jersey. Equisearch.com visited with the driver shortly before the Festival.
Q: How did you get involved in driving? What sparked your interest?
A: I used to ride ponies, then hunters and jumpers, though not very successfully. My family always had driving horses and carriages. I grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and my father’s farm was nearby in Newton. I jumped from driving a single to a four-in-hand by the time I was twelve. I suppose you could say that it’s in my blood.
Q: Tell me a bit about your newest team.
A: I have five Swedish horses and one Holsteiner. Three of the horses of this team have been together before, competing at the World Games. They have been ready to go, but I had to postpone competing because of my rotator cuff surgery. Todd Nichols helped out keeping them fit.
Q: How will your injury effect your plan going into the Festival of Champions?
A: I am going to give it a try for the Festival, but if it is too sore during the marathon, then I will pull out. I can’t sit still for that long, so I am anxious to compete. In addition, it is an important school for the team and myself because I feel that it is important to get to know them before the selection trials in the fall.
Q: What do you feel will be your strengths and challenges for the Festival?
A: I am looking forward to the dressage — it is this team’s strong point. And the marathon hasn’t been terribly strong, but it will be a learning experience, certainly getting back into the rough.
Q: What is your favorite aspect of the sport?
A: Training. I find it to be very rewarding because it is quite tough to get a team working and have it all come together. It takes a lot, but I love all elements. The dressage lends itself for the marathon, the cones can be trying, and each has its strength. The marathon is fun and gets the adrenaline pumping, and the dressage is just brilliant — no favorite!
Q: Tell me a little about your training regime, if you don’t mind divulging your winning secrets.
A: A great deal of fitness is involved. I usually put in one tough day per week, including hill sprints or some strenuous activity. We ride up hills one to two days and I like to get in two days of two or two and a half hours of walking. We work on dressage on the days in between. I feel that working the horses everyday with the heavy carriage is too much wear and tear, so I prefer to ride as part of a cross-training program.
Q: Your wife runs a hunters and jumpers out of your barn. How does that work?
A: I try to support her, and watch her grand prix classes at the bigger shows, as well as watch my son ride his junior jumper. My wife also tries to attend my driving competitions.
Q: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
A: Well, of course, the team gold medal was quite a thrill. I seem to have had more success with pairs lately, and I had a team last year that was entirely new and in their first season who finished quite strong. For me that is a great success.
Q: When you’re not competing or training, what activities do you enjoy?
A: I love working on the farm, climbing on a tractor. I also love to ski. I enjoyed it throughout college and try to sneak away to ski now.
Q: How many competitions do you attend per year? How far must you travel for most of them?
A: Last year I went on a whirlwind, appearing in Aiken, Florida, North Carolina, Canada, Germany, Sweden, back to Germany, Fair Hill (U.S.), and then back to Canada for indoors. So, I suppose you could say I travel quite a bit.
Q: Driving seems to be gaining popularity. What do you see in the future for the sport?
A: While I don’t see any hope for Olympic aspirations, the sport is changing and the change is positive. The indoors in Canada are beginning a World Cup of driving competition. The marathons are becoming shorter, encouraging spectators. It is becoming better for the public to watch while simultaneously improving the sport for competitors, no longer driving horses into the ground (excuse the pun) with grueling marathons. The horses are fresher and the public may be a part of it. America has the chance for an extremely strong team. There are several excellent drivers and talented teams.
Q: What do you see five to ten years down the road? What are your long term goals and plans?
A: Last year marked my twentieth year of international competition. And I am looking forward to the future World Games in Spain. Perhaps at thirty years I’ll re-evaluate, but for now, I am anxious to debut my team!–Katie Cooper