Wednesday, July 18, 2007

St Galmier French Nationals - 119 km Ride

Wednesday July 13 2007

I got back to France my usual way of travelling: with strangers. Alice arranged for her endurance rider friend Alex Luque to pick me up on a Spanish highway on his way to Saint Galmier near the Provence region in southeast France, for the French National Championships. Jordi Comellas dropped me off at a gas station stop, and Alex and his friend Bernie picked me up at 4 PM, and on the road back to France I went with them. Alex would be riding his gelding Atiklan in the horse's first 160 km ride, and Bernie would be crewing for him.

For the second year in a row Saint Galmier was hosting the French National Endurance Championships. In addition to the Bahrain International Trophy 119 km on Thursday, the St Galmier International Cup (Championship of France) 164 km on Saturday, and the CEN* 89 km ride on Sunday, there would also be the Attelage (Driving) Endurance Nationals and the “Championnat de Franc Modeles et Allures Chevaux Pur Sang Arabe” - French National Halter show - going on at the same time in an arena in the infield. A big, busy weekend for horses and riders and drivers and crews and all the many volunteers who worked from morning to night each day!

Basecamp, or the venue was the Hippodrome de Saint Galmier, a racetrack where flat and harness racing takes place. There's an inner and middle dirt, and outer grass course. All the horse vans (most of them little 2-horse vans – no live-in trailers) were parked in a big neat row around the inner course. Rows of temporary barns with stalls were put up in one area for the endurance horses; further away another several temporary barns with stalls were put up for the show horses. During the day the horses could be put out on the grass in temporary fencing; at night they went into their stalls.

Thursday July 12 2007

I woke up early and caught a ride to the venue (basecamp) in time for the start of the 119 km ride, at a most reasonable hour of 6:30 AM.

I got another good taste of the European style of crewing this day – running to the van after the start, racing hell pell mell down the narrow winding roads to crew points and other points where the horses crossed driveable roads. The press van I was in was driven by a very jolly Frenchman who cornered the turns on two wheels with the best of 'em, and Rachel Romezy was along for interpreting when necessary. Following our van, or sometimes leading our van, was another van of camera men from Bahrain TV, following 4 Bahraini riders. Tawfiq Salehi was handing out chocolate bars for breakfast, and had other refreshments – I'm hanging with the Bahrainis from now on!

It's crazy at the crew stops again, cars parked on both sides of the tiny one-lane roads, other cars squeezing through the parked cars and people trying to park to get out and get set up – buckets of water and water bottles and people lining the roads and trail, shoes being laced up to prepare for running. When the horses come it's kind of like the baton relay you did in high school: the horse and rider you are crewing for is coming up behind you fast, and you start sprinting till he catches up, and you hand off the water bottle(s) to the rider, who pours and splashes them on her horse at a canter, dropping the bottles when they are empty. You, the crew person, are still sprinting along after the horse, picking up the empty bottles. Sometimes the horses stop for a drink, sometimes they don't. Occasionally a rider has to stop for reshoeing, losing valuable time. After all the horses have passed through and all the crews have packed up to leave and race off to the next crew point, nothing is left behind but footprints of the horses and humans.

The horses followed trails through rolling farmland thick with corn and wheat, around the villages of Saint Galmier and Chamboeuf, over a fair amount of paved roads, with traffic control, 1 or 2 humans, at all the crossings.

After racing to more crew points on the 30.5 km first loop, we raced back to the venue to watch the action at the first vet gate. It was already a beehive of phrenetic activity, flying sponges and frantic splashing, water bottles pouring and buckets flinging, humans running around the horses and back and forth to the water troughs. Crew people ran to and fro wearing heart rate monitors around their necks or sticking out of their pockets, bridles hanging off shoulders, saddles on arms and backs. It was a cool morning that had started out with heavy clouds (it had rained the last 3 days here), but the clouds were slowly giving way to sunshine.

After the 40 minute hold, horses started taking off on their next loop... and we were off in our vans again on the next 29 km loop, zooming along narrow roads in a line of cars, 2-wheeling around roller coaster corners to more stops. The lead horses kept up a fast pace throughout the third 30.5 km loop and the final 29 km loop, with the first three finishers flying home in an exciting galloping finish. Only one second separated the winner Enora Boulenger and her horse Idais Tobiha from second place Celine Schwartz, who finished by one second ahead of Isabelle Boyer. Boulenger had steadily worked her way to the top, from 18th place at the first vet gate, to 6th at the second vet gate, to 1st at the finish. Her horse had pretty amazing recoveries at each vet gate: 37 beats per minute (in 1:29), 62 (in 1:34), 44 (in 3:09), with a pulse of 42 at the finish, and that's with averaging 20 km/hr over the 119 km. Wow.

Fourth place Claude Borlet raced in by one second over Magali Zibret. Shaikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Khalifa finished in 6th place, then later handed the trophy for the officially titled Bahrain International Trophy to Boulenger. In total, 56 of 80 starters finished the ride.

Best Conditioned judging was held about an hour after the top ten finished; all the horses entered the ring together, were inspected by veterinarians, and took turns trotting out. Herve Gesdon provided the melodic commentary in French (of which I understood not a word), and as everybody waited to hear the announcement who won, suddenly there was a big groan, and people started leaving the arena. What – nobody won BC? I had to ask what happened.

“They will announce the Best Conditioned winner tomorrow!”

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