Friday, September 14, 2007

Portugal European Endurance Championship and Open 2007

Portugal Endurance Championship 2007

Saturday September 8 2007

We made the decision the night before to skip the 6:30 AM start of the ride at Companhia das Lezírias and instead head straight to Barroca D'Alva, about 20 km away, where Vet Gates 2, 3, 4, and 5 would take place – avoiding what must have been a mad dash in heavy traffic of crews and officials making the move.

Near 7:30 AM we arrived at Barroca D'Alva, the eye of the hurricane, where all had been quietly and calmly prepared for the first of the onslaughts that would arrive within the next two hours off Loop 1. Tents of the sponsors, the Westin CampoReal hotel, the Qatar Foundation, and the big (exclusive!) tents of the Princes from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, surrounded the crewing and resting areas for the horses. Buckets were laid out in neat rows and groups, strategically placed by each team where they thought the best advantage for getting them to the In Vet Gate would be. A few crew members (who weren't out driving the first 34.5 km loop) were putting last minute touches on filling water buckets with precise levels of water and ice, and arranging their spots, positioning sponges and scrapers for easy access. The fog was heavy and the temperature quite moderate and pleasant (so far).

I staked a spot a short way out on the common trail in and out of the venue for the first riders coming in. It was right at a clearly marked turn in... which a few riders missed. Perhaps it was my camera that distracted some, or maybe the two dogs who'd been allowed to run loose at the venue (or perhaps they'd escaped their owners). The first riders were the team of Maktoum princes from the UAE, riding in a tight fast formation. The rest of the 88 riders all come in, steadily, within a half hour of each other. I shot pictures of my Dutch friends Janet Lam and Jeanne Linneweever, then turned to catch the next riders coming down the trail, when I sensed a commotion behind me. There was one of the dogs, looking quite innocent, one rider-less horse, and one little explosion of dust on the ground – Ricki's Macho Man had ejected Jeanne from the saddle. She bounced right back up and lost no time hopping back on Macho – she's used to this, he's done it a few times before throughout their partnership – and they continued on in. Perhaps sensing their culpability in the minor wreck, the dogs finally left the scene, happily wagging their tails.

Seven riders dropped out after the first loop (two for metabolics), including 2 of the 4 Russians, who had travelled such a long way to get here. Four riders were eliminated after the second loop.

The hold times between each loop were quite short – 30 minutes for the first two, and 40 minutes for the last 3, some with a represent before going back out – not much time for the horses to rest and eat. Pulse criteria was 64, minimum weight to carry was 75 kg (165 lb).

The fog had lifted by the time all riders were out on 27-km Loop 3, and it gradually got warmer and muggier. End of Loop 3, for the American team, Cheryl Van Deusen was the foremost in 55th place, with Heather Reynolds and Jan Worthington moving along steadily together in 66th and 67th place, and Darolyn Butler in 73rd place. It was a surprise to see Heather's horse Cal Flaming Emit pulled after gate 3, because the vets didn't like his CRI. Cheryl Van Deusen is clearly smitten with her horse DA Al Capone, calling him “Alvin” and “Handsome” in the vet gates. Two-thirds of Cheryl's lifetime AERC miles are on this horse, and all but 30 miles of Alvin's 2465 miles over 7 seasons have been with Cheryl in the saddle. Alvin looked the strongest of the US horses throughout the loops.

Eight other horses were eliminated after Loop 3, including one more Russian, and the lone participant from Georgia, Anna Gugunava.

Whereas yesterday's atmostphere seemed to me to be somewhat relaxed for what I expected a European Championship to be, today it was intense, especially in the crewing area. Coming into the vet gates, it was like Indy 500 pitstops. Immediately as the horse crossed the line to stop the timer, people swarmed the horse to each do their specific job: one to grab the horse and remove the bridle, two – one on each side - to remove the saddle, one to throw water between the legs, two on each side to sponge the neck, two more on each side to pour buckets of water on the the horse, one to take the pulse, the whole crew and horse moving as one multi-legged organism toward the set-up water buckets for that horse, or moving toward the vet in gate.

With Steph following the ride and posting written updates, that left me free – and plenty busy – just taking pictures and running back and forth to upload them. One can easily go all day (and sometimes you just have to) without eating or drinking, but running low on fuel, in the growing heat, I had to run for expressos and a quick meal and fabulous dessert a few times, from the busy Westin CampoReal tent, where they had a great selection of buffet food and freely flowing wine, beer, and expressos. The tent got more crowded as the day went on, with more spectators - for the horses, or the wine and social scene? It didn't matter, it was good to see so many people, some in fancy dress, out enjoying the ambience.

As the hot day went on, more people crowded the vet lanes to watch the trot outs, more people lined the lanes coming in and going out onto the course. Two of the Dutch riders dropped out: Janet Lam and her Akhal-teke mare Bugainvillia pulled after Vet Gate 4 on metabolics – Janet said she had just gotten too tired. Jeanne's horse Ricki's Macho Man was out on lameness. Macho didn't think anything was wrong, as he was dragging Jeanne all over the place. “He doesn't understand why he can't go back out! He knows the ride is not finished.”

Ten other horses dropped out at gate 4, including one of the favorites, Fausto Fiorucci and his horse Jaifar, who won last year's pre-ride. Second in that same race was Jean Phillippe Frances, riding Hanaba du Bois, who was moving strongly along forwardly placed. Third last year was British Christine Yeoman on her tough little gelding Farouk De Lozelle; today they were also moving up steadily, from around 35th place to 25th.

Running back and forth with my camera between the trail and the crewing areas and the media tent (okay... and the expresso tent), I ran into several 'old' friends from my past travels. Australian Peter Toft was present, holding a camera instead of reins today, since horse sports in Australia are somewhat paralyzed with the equine flu epidemic. Peter appeared to be enjoying the scene, especially after he met The Raven II (who was along observing his first European Championship), since he'd heard so much about The (first) Raven in Australia. Other acquaintances were present, including Meg Wade; Assissi Ride participant South African Peter Chantler, who was crewing today; and photographer Heidi Bernsdorf, who'd taken me under her wings and given me a ride all over the course at Kreuth, Germany.

Steph and I caught most of the riders coming in off Loop 5, and 4 of the UAE boys going out on Loop 6 – still looking strong and running fast in front – before we packed up and joined in the mad dash back to Companhia das Lezírias for the finish. The mad dash turned into a massive traffic jam, where our long line of cars was literally parked on the highway. At first we heard distant sirens and figured it was a very inopportune wreck, and then I saw some endurance horses crossing the highway. But after the horses crossed, our cars never moved, and the sirens kept coming. We were sure it must also be a wreck, and we were resigned to the fact that we were going to miss the winners crossing the finish line at Companhia das Lezírias.

Then the police, with their blazing lights and wailing sirens passed, followed not by ambulances, but by... a line of black Mercedes cars and SUVs! “It's the Shaikh escort!” Steph said, as we watched them whiz past us poor souls stranded on the parking lot of the highway. “If Cidinha were driving, she'd follow them!” Steph mused. It only took her 1 ½ seconds to say, “I'm going to follow them!” as she deftly swung out of our parked string, and slipped neatly between a couple of black Mercedes in our little putt putt rent-a-car, cleverly disguised with our emergency flashers on.

In so doing, we passed the parked line of cars (both directions), whizzing down the narrow highway with our personal police escort at 120 km/hr. We made it to Companhia das Lezírias with enough time to run down to the finish line and stake our spots. The finish was down near a field, with a long straightaway for the close finish that was likely, and that had been brewing between the UAE riders all day. They'd looked good going out on the last loop – wouldn't that be something if they all came racing in together! A good crowd had gathered, filling the bar, and lining the fence above the finish, and crowding right at – and on – the finish line.

It wasn't dust from horses' hooves that heralded the approach of the first finishers, but the press helicopter that hovered above them, following their progress. The buzz of the crowd picked up as the helicopter got closer, and we could finally see the big group of riders coming along the last lane before the turn for home...

Only it was not the close group of 4 UAE riders, but only two of them, Sultan Bin Sulayem and Mubarak Khalifa Al Shafya. They didn't sprint for the finish either; they cantered in, with Bin Sulayem loping across the line an easy length ahead. Minutes later, it looked to be a horserace between the next three riders, but the horses had varying amounts of gas left, and there were a few lengths between them over the line: France's Jean Phillippe Frances, followed by Spain's Jaume Punti Dachs, and his wife, Maria Alvarez Ponton.

Next came Prince Hamdam Bin Mohamed Al Maktoum, wrapped in the UAE flag, followed several minutes later by Spain's Jordi Arboix, then the happy French team members Philippe Benoit and Virginia Atger on her tough and terrific horse Kangoo D'aurabelle, cantering in together.

More finishers trickled in steadily, including the only Belgian to finish, ecstatic Kristel Van Den Abeele on Epson De La Bruskaie (they finished 5th in Compiegne in June), and, what looked to be the sprint-in of the day, between Spain's Eloina Fernandez Vega and the UAE's Prince Ahmed. Vega was riding Rayito, a horse that stood out at the vet-in on Friday, and all during today's ride - not because he was a big beautiful Anglo-Arab type that always grabs my eye, or something like an eye-turning dark dappled bay coat. No, this was a little, round, roan horse that resembled a miniature quarter horse. He was pitted against the Shaikh's big, tall, handsome, rangy chestnut Jazyk – the type that does catch my eye.

Turning the corner for home, Vega and Prince Ahmed kicked into a sprint – but the race was over as soon as it started. The Prince's horse stumbled right away and he fell out of the race-in. However, I think Shaikh Ahmed's horse faked a stumble on purpose so he wouldn't have to race this little Rayito, because he knew there was going to be no catching him.

When they both took off, Rayito immediately left Jazyk in the dust. Rayito KNEW that Jazyk stumbled, and he was already far ahead, but even so, he grabbed the bit and sprinted to the finish, Eloina along for the wild ride whether she wanted it or not. She hollered Whoa, she pulled on the reins and sat far back in the saddle with her legs forward as brakes, but Rayito didn't slow down till he'd crossed the finish line and scattered the spectators! And that's because Rayito knows he's a champion: 2005 in the Spanish championships he won the bronze, 2006 he won the silver, and this year he was the Spanish gold medal champion. I heard a rumor he was not on the Spanish team because he didn't look the part of a champion. He certainly doesn't have royal breeding: his father is an Arabian, but his mother was half Percheron (hence his shape) and half Anglo Arab, and a 'lowly' plow horse. Rayito is doing his parents proud, as Spanish champion, and by finishing 15th in the Open and in the European division. Go son-of-a-plow-horse!

Meanwhile, a Celebrity arived, and some intrigue developed on course. Shaikh Mohammed Al Maktoum of Dubai arrived at the finish line to watch his sons come in. I didn't know who it was at first – just saw a large collection of blue shirts moving down toward the finish line, and a double-thick line of photographers preceding the procession. Then I caught a glimpse of the familiar face of the Shaikh, but I didn't join the line of photographers, because I figured the world had enough pictures of Shaikh Mohammed standing on the ground and surrounded by people. Truth was, I was too short and had too small a camera to squeeze my way in there to take a picture!

And shortly after this, I noticed a little truck out on the course, about a half-mile or more from the finish. I didn't think vehicles were allowed out there, but I figured the truck and the 4 or 5 people I could see through my telephoto lens were out there to crew for somebody, hand off the last minute water bottles for the sprint to the finish.

Eventully more people noticed this truck, and then 2 or 3 people started to wander out that direction. Then, another truck raced out there. Then Shaikh Mohammed and several others started running out there on foot, followed by more people, followed by a speeding truck and trailer, followed by a host of Bahrainis on foot. I never did see any horse – just people, and more people. What was going on? Later we heard that a horse had tripped and fallen down; and still later we heard that it was Shaikh Majid from the UAE whose horse fell down, and that Shaikh Nasser from Bahrain had stopped to see if he needed help.

And this is where some things became a little unclear. Shaikh Majid had gone out on Loop 5, but the finish results show him as having vetted out lame after Loop 5. I eventually heard that the horse of Sultan Bin Sulayem who came first across the finish line, Nashmi, did not come down to the 64 pulse criteria in time, though the results list the horse as lame. Same with the 7th across the finish line, Jordi Arboix on Jour D'ainoa.

With the vet ring and results being a distance away up the hill, it was't till later I heard all of this. I remained at the finish line waiting for the Americans – and as I kept waiting, and the sun dropped lower in the sky, at least one American – to finish before dark, but I finally had to give up. And later I found out all 3 of the remaining US riders had been eliminated at gate 5. We'd missed those results because we had to race back to Companhia das Lezírias for the finish. I also missed the last two riders to successfully cross the finish line, the Dutch sisters, Marjolein Vos-Sturrus and Anita Lamsma.

In total, 36 of 88 starters completed, a 40.9% completion rate. With the first across the line, Sultan Bin Sulayem, being eliminated, that left the UAE's Mubarak Khalifa Al Shafya winner of the Open Qatar Challenge, and the Jean Phillippe Frances (of France) and Hanaba du Bois as European Champions. Continuing their usual strong showing, the indomitable French team won Gold in both the Open and European Teams competition – Vive la France!

Spain's Jaume Punti and Maria Alvarez Ponton won European silver and bronze; and Jean Phillipe Frances silver in the Open and Punti bronze in the Open.

The Bahraini team won silver in the Open teams. Their coach said this was a great achievement for Bahrain; they are quite proud of their horses and their endurance program. The Bahrainis train part time, they don't ride every day, they “are not complete professionals,” - they have jobs and can't concentrate on endurance full time, unlike countries such as France. The Bahrainis came to Portugal early and studied the course, and expected a hard ride. And it was a hard ride, according to many riders: it was very rocky, very dusty, and always up and down, never flat, and the weather was hot in the middle of the day, and very humid.

Then there's the Swiss – always there, always consistent in the past World and European championships. With many of the same riders and horses, the Swiss team took the bronze medal in the 2005 Compiegne European Championships and silver in the 2006 World Championships in Aachen, and here the European bronze.

Jean Phillipe Frances' great mare Hanaba du Bois took Best Conditioned honors the next morning.

And so the curtain fell on another year of top horses and riders around the world, coming together this year in Portugal to compete over 160 kilometers, to test their skills and abilities over a demanding course in demanding weather conditions. There were plenty of unexpected disappointments, and some great accomplishments, deserving accolades for all who finished, the individuals and the team members. The success of the French continues year after year, supported by their strong endurance breeding program, and their successful schooling of young riders. “The French Rock!” (as at least one observer commented), could be the theme of this year's Portugal European Endurance Championship and Open Qatar Challenge.

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