Wednesday, April 30, 2008

2008 Spanish Championships: Figarol

Saturday April 26 2008

Legend has it that the famous bandit Sanchicorrota put his horse's shoes on backwards to confuse his pursuers through the area that is now the Bardenas Reales Natural Park, in northern Spain. It is a varied semi-desert landscape of wind- and water-eroded clay hills and gullies, croplands, and pinewoods. It is home to numerous mammals and birds of prey; and on April 26 2008, it provided part of the backdrop and trails for a different kind of horse chase: the 2008 Campeonato de España - the Spanish Endurance Championships in Figarol.

In the Navarra region of northern Spain, bordered by the Basque country, France, Aragón, and La Rioja, the small village of Figarol for the first time hosted the Spanish Championships. Fifty-three entries, including 2 Portuguese and one Norwegian rider, took on the 160-km challenge over trails of hard-packed roads, grass trails, and asphalt, with a good round of hill-climbing in the first and third of six phases.

Included in the mix were four former Spanish Champions: double champion Miquel Vila - 1997 and 2006 (also World Endurance Champion in 2006), Marc Comas, Bernat Casals, and Eloina Fernandez Vega. Actually, there were five Spanish Champions if you count horses - and this little horse cannot be overlooked. Half arabian from his sire, and part Percheron and Anglo-Arabian from his dam, Rayito is a little roan that can do it all. Rayito and Eloina finished third in 2005, 2nd in 2006, and 1st in 2007 (and 15th in the 2007 European Championship)... would they repeat this year?

Since 1994 Spain has also given honors to the top Equipos - teams - in the Spanish Championships. This year produced competition between Cataluña, Asturia, Andalucía, the Canary Islands, País Vasco, and Cantabria.

The field was off at 7 AM under clear skies and 13*C. The previous night's ride meeting was quite boisterous - "riders are getting nervous," noted one observer, but it was an orderly start on the paved street leading out of Figarol. All the vet gates would be in Figarol, with 6 fases: Fase 1 and 3 repeated, 35 km; Fase 2 31 km; fases 4 and 5 repeated, 35 km; and a final 13 km fase. Heart rate of 64 bpm after 30 minutes, and a minimum speed average of 12 km/h (or a 13 hour 50 minute total time) were the standards. The horses wore a sophisticated transponder made by Francois Kerboul's ATRM Systems - no bigger than 2 inches x 1 inch by 1/2 inch (5 cm x 2.5 cm x 1.2 cm) - which attached to a biothane throatlatch strap that attached to each bridle. Results (when internet is available at the venue) are put onto the internet in real time.

Fase one (and three) led east out of Figarol toward the little village of Castiliscar. This served as a setting for 4 asistencia puntos, and later, an outdoor barbeque for participants. Riders made a loop up into the hills above Castiliscar, with the village providing a picturesque backdrop for the horses returning and making their way back toward the assistant point. Jules the French photographer and I had our own escort, Javier, who knew just where to take us for the best pictures. We made a comical group; Jules spoke one word of Spanish, "pista" - the track, and no English; I spoke two words of French, "bon jour," and only a little Spanish; Javier spoke no French or English, and just carried on conversations with us in Spanish; so we made do with hand gestures and laughing at each other a lot, in between stopping for and taking our photos. We had quite the entertaining day.

The end of Fase one showed a close cluster of 13 horses arriving in the first group within 1 1/2 minutes of each other. Jordi Arboix on Jour de Ainhoa would come away with a 13 second lead over María Alvarez Ponton on Ipso de la Drome. Included in this front bunch was Eloina Fernández Vega and Rayito. Miquel Vila arrived in 20th place, 8 1/2 minutes behind the leader. Surprisingly, Jaume Punti's mount Iska was eliminated on metabolics at this gate. The mare obviously had a bad day, as she'd proven she could handle 160 kms before, having finished 3rd in Florac in 2004.

The recuperation, or cooling down area, took place in a chopos grove, providing a cover of shade for when it got hot later in the day, and turning into a muddy slime of thick and slick clay throughout the day from all the water dumped on the horses.

Fase 2 took riders on a scenic loop to the southwest past rich green rice paddies and fields of grass and trigo (wheat), a few herds of sheep, and through the very scenic Bardenas Reales Natural Park - though many of the riders were so focused, I don't know that they noticed! In some places, the carved clay hills and arroyos looked much like the Badlands in South Dakota, USA (also home to some famous old bandits), and some of the desert-scape resembled a little part of southern Idaho. The footing was quite good today, though if it had rained, the horses would have been carrying 2 inches of thick clay on each hoof, and it would have been slick as snot.

Seven riders, led by Juan Carlos Ruiz de Villa arrived at Vet Gate 2 within 2 minutes of each other, with Marc Codina's Bram recovering fastest to have a 4-second lead on the way out on Fase 3. Rayito moved into second place, with Jordi Arboix 1:16 behind the leader, and María Ponton dropping back to 14th, 10:13 minutes behind the leader. Bernat Casals on Namu de Vilaformiu, not out to win today, but to complete the ride, was maintaining an average of 14.5 km/hr, and was 48 minutes behind the leader, in 40th place. Five more horses were eliminated at this vet gate, all for lameness, including Miqeul Vila on Deba.

The highlight of Fase 3, which was a repeat of Fase 1, was the barbeque set up at the assistance point near Castiliscar. The chorrizo sandwich was absolutely stunning. Cold beer and red wine was available, and it was one popular place. And while we are on the subject of food, what cannot go unmentioned is the little Doshaches cafe at the ride base. Three women waited on a couple hundred desperately hungry and thirsty and very demanding monsters, from at least 6:30 AM Saturday straight through to at least 1:30 AM Sunday morning (they came back after Friday, and they returned again on Sunday!) - always quickly and efficiently, and always with a smile on their faces. I caught only one name, Marissa (the other two were whirling around too fast), and they were able to make drinks for 5 customers at a time, or carry 12 empty plates away at one time as soon as you were done eating, or take 10 orders at one time. Their smiles and laughs were always there, and I really don't think it was because we were such a charming bunch of people. Really, I've never seen anything like it.

Castiliscar had a number of local villagers watching the horses clomp through the paved village streets, some of them on their balconies, and some of them on the street corners. There was a cafe on the corner that Javier stopped by to buy coffees for Jules and me after those cracking barbeque sandwiches. Jules and I were picked up in this village and taken back to Figarol with Patxi Jimenez, president of the Federación Navarra de Hipica, and Manolo Sanchez, also a member and representative of the Navarra Federación, who helped keep everything running smoothly, including the scenery that I am sure he arranged for us photographers.

Jordi Arboix and Jour de Ainhoa once again led the pack in off of Fase 3, and recovered the fastest for a 23 second lead over Eloina and Rayito. Marc Comas and Malika moved up to fourth, and Oriol Llorens on Ali Baraka came into fifth, after having moved up steadily from 14th on Fase 1 and 9th on Fase 2. The leaders maintained an average of 17.6 km/h. Six more horses fell out of the competition after Fase 3, four of them for lameness and metabolics. The temperature had climbed to around 29*C by 1:30 PM, if you were in the sun with no breeze.

The leaders of the ride now began overlapping the tail-enders on Fase 4, (which doubled as Fase 5), a 35 km loop to the village of Carcastillo to the west. Taking over the lead now was Oriol Llorens and Ali Baraka by a 1:15 lead over Francisco Dominguez and Espia, having moved up steadily throughout the day, from 16th, to 13th, to 9th, to second. This pair was a local favorite of a few people to win the championship, but they still had 2 more fases to go. Jordi Arboix was 5th, 1 1/2 minutes behind Llorens, and María Ponton fourth, with 3 minutes separating those two. Fase 4 took the biggest toll on the horses, with 13 being eliminated, including Marc Comas's Malika, and Portuguese rider Filipe Fialho, riding Sultana Ben Dandy - the mare bred by Vasco Lopes Avó, whom I visited in Portugal. They were coming off a win in the March 15 Catalonian Championships in Cron over 120 km.

Jordi Arboix arrived off Fase 5 a second ahead of María Ponton, but María's Ipso de la Drome recovered almost a full minute faster than Arboix's Jour de Ainhoa, so María would leave on the final 13-km fase with a 57-second lead. Ipso de la Drome required a second trot out, but the congregation of veterinarians gave the horse a passing grade.

Coming in with this front group again were Eloina Fernández and Rayito. A murmur went through some of the crowd gathered around the vet ring: Rayito was asked for a second trot out. A groan accompanied it: Rayito was lame! Sadly, last year's champion was eliminated, but he got a well-deserved great round of appreciation and applause from onlookers. Four more horses were eliminated at this vet check, including Bernat Casals' Namur de Vilaformiu. They had taken a fall out on this loop of the course, and while the horse passed vet inspection, Bernat made a conservative decision to retire him.

That left 22 horses to go out on the final Fase 6. The exit gate was crowded with a group of people cheering the first ones out, María Alvarez and Jordi Arboix. So far, María's horse had the best recoveries of all but one of the horses in the ride (Oriol Llorens and Ali Baraka), and now she had a 57-second headstart in first place. Would she last to the finish? Going out third, 4 1/2 minutes off the lead, was Francisco Dominguez and Espia; following 3 minutes later were Llorens and Ali Baraka; 6 1/2 minutes behind them were Alex Luque and Gazal-XVIII-3. Luque and his mount had steadily moved up since the start 10 hours ago, from 25th to 17th to 10th to 6th. There was a big gap of some 31 minutes to the next rider, Monica Comas on Turco D'Oasis.

In 20 minutes a crowd gathers at the finish line waiting for the first horse to appear... and out of the dust comes a galloping Jordi Arboix on Jour de Ainhoa, wearing a huge grin, arms waving in the air and reaching down to pat his horse. Following 23 seconds later was María Ponton and Ipso de la Drome. María's horse presented at the vet gate 12 minutes later, and a cheer went up as they trotted out and then as they passed inspection. Jordi presented 21 minutes after his finish; a great cheer went up as they trotted out, and as they passed inspection: the new Spanish Champions for 2008.

Crossing the finish line 5 minutes later, with possibly the second biggest smile of the day was Alex Luque on Gazal-XVIII-3. The cheer they got from the crowd around the vet ring upon passing inspection equaled the one for the winner.

Oriol Llorens and Ali Baraka finished 4th; Monica Comas on Turco D'Oasis was 5th; Placido Diaz on Hassan placed 6th. Finishing 7th and 8th were the two other Portuguese riders, Joao Raposo on Titanic, and Antonio Moura on Osama, two men who had come a long distance by road to get here, and who had travelled the trail steadily throughout the day, maintaining a very steady 15-16 km/h average over every loop. Joao had just finished 3rd in the 2008 Portugal Championships in Golega a week earlier on Quinza. Riding for Norway, Camila Smestad finished 16th on AK Cadiz.

Local favorite Francisco Dominguez, who had gone out on Fase 6 in 3rd place, had a shoeing disaster a short distance out on the loop. The shoer was called out on trail, and the shoe replaced, but in any case, his horse Espia was sadly eliminated at the finish for lameness. Cesar Tasias on Diva, and Uma Mencia on Zita were also unfortunately eliminated at the finish for lameness - tough blow after all that work, but that's endurance.

19 riders - 16 of them Spanish - completed the ride, with Asier Illarramendi on Noun de Colombier just squeaking in around 11 PM under the cut-off time. Equipos gold medal went to the team from Cataluña: Jordi Arboix, María Alvarez, Alex Luque - the top 3 finishers - and Monica Comas; silver was Asturia, and bronze was the Canary Islands.

Kudos to the finishers, and to the Navarra Federacion who put on a well-organized event - and to the new Spanish champions, Jordi Arboix and Jour de Ainhoa.

2008 Spanish Championships

Images from the ride

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Portugal Horse Tour

Monday April 21 2008

Portugal may have a total of only 50-60 endurance riders in the entire country, with only 6-7 consistently competing at the top level. Like anywhere, most people have other jobs, and the endurance riding is an extra that must be supported, by money and time. One endurance horse takes enough time on its own, and if you are hooked enough to have one endurance horse you probably have at least one more, and if you have more than one, well, try keeping them all in condition. Most of Portugal's endurance riders, and Arabian breeders, are concentrated in the Alentejo Province surrounding Lisbon - kind of like the Auburn, California area of the US.

Two sacred subjects that consistently come up in conversations around the world, when people hear I am from the US are, "I want to ride the Tevis Cup," and "Becky Hart and Rio." Vasco mentioned both of these. He'd like to ride the Tevis; and once he rode alongside Becky briefly in one of the World Championships and wanted to ask her for her autograph. Becky, you and Rio are still revered everywhere I go! : )

Vasco took more time away from his work and family to show me around the area, to visit some stunning horses and a long-time Arabian breeder.

First we went to see his anglo-Arab, Dancer - a distant (half) cousin to my Thoroughbred ex-racehorse, Stormy - getting a nice rest in some thick purple-flowered pastures just outside of Evora. Just 8 years old, Dancer is the apple of Vasco's equine eye, (one of them, anyway - I think really they all are), and he just completed a 120-km ride last month, after throwing first one front shoe, then another. They'd been in 9th place until the shoe turmoil. Vasco's eyes light up when he talks about Dancer's big effortless canter. His sire is Danddy - who we'd see next - the sire of a number of foals out of Vasco's special mares, and the sire of Sultana, the mare who just won the Catalon Championships in Cron, Spain, a month ago.

Just like you'd label many young girls 'horse-crazy,' I think you could slip Vasco (and his brother Eduardo) into this same category. Vasco first learned to ride some of the working horses on his grandfather's farm; his grandfather bought Vasco and Eduardo their own horses from a local fair when Vasco was about 7. He also took lessons, and his first competitions were in show jumping and dressage; and then he got into the smaller endurance rides. He remembers well his first 160 km ride in 1992, which took him 18 hours to complete. They pass a little more quickly now.

The next place we stopped was Olivierinha Farm (where we dropped off Trovador yesterday), the farm of Antonio's father, Joao Saldanha - one of Portugal's early pure Arabian breeders for at least 30 years. In one of the pastures is the 24-year-old Danddy, by Jaxar out of Urzela. Owned and competed by Antonio's brother, Danddy was one of the best endurance horses to come out of Portugal. He completed "7 or 8 160-km rides, several 2-day 200-km rides, and won the Eldric trophy," Vasco ticked off his accomplishments. Antonio's brother doesn't ride endurance so much anymore - he's living in Lisbon and has family commitments, and besides, what do you do after you've had a horse like that? Other than breed him and keep the line going. Danddy still looks fit and healthy, no sway in his back, still moves with a lightness and grace; he has a pasture of Vasco's mares to keep him occupied.

With a horse like Danddy, Vasco knew what he wanted to do: get some of the old foundation mare bloodlines and cross them with Danddy. Several years ago, he did just that: he selectively searched all over Portugal and Spain, and bought up some of the old mares, 24 years and up, taking some of the old Crabbet lines from the Portuguese National Stud, and Crabbet lines from the Duke of Veragua's Veragua Stud in Spain. And indeed, Vasco's mares and their foals are a sight; most of these are some of the get of these best-line mares and crossed with Danddy. Excellent balance and size and conformation - just made me want to get on them and ride off onto the trails right there. Sultana is a result of this cross, and Vasco has several siblings to her.

This is a great area to raise the horses - the rich Mediterranean climate and land produces the azinheira oaks (the Portuguese name for the tree that gives the acorns for the Iberian pig), olive trees, cork trees, grapes. The grass is thick and nutritious and natural - doesn't need planting - good for horses, and cattle and sheep alike. It's so green now, though I was warned that in summer, everything would be brown, no matter how much rain they were getting now. There are trails of old rail lines, the rails having been removed, that now provide excellent training trails.

From there we moved on to the farm of Caetano Oliveira Soares - "a cattle farm to pay for the horses," said Caetano. He's got 1000 head of cattle on 900 hectares (2200 acres), beautiful rich fields of purple flowers, thick grasses, cattle - and some stunning purebred Arabian horses. He bought some of the good mares from Vasco a while back (Vasco likes to sell to friends near by so he can come and see how his horses are doing, see that they are well taken care of - "but you can't keep them all"), and Caetano bred the three Crabbet stallions he took out of their stalls for me to see in the indoor arena. All of them, 7-year-old Uva ("Grape"), 7-year-old Ultra (his half brother) and 11-year-old Que Bom ("So Good") made me weak in the knees, especially when he showed all of them on the ground doing the piaffe and passage moves... and the stallions knew they were showing off. Caetano rides, but doesn't do endurance: "I am too old, I let my daughter ride." However he does ride, and trains all his horses to learn these moves: "I think it is important for them when they go 160 kilometers, to be able to round up and collect themselves, to be balanced." Caetano's daughter Margarida Soares rode Uva to a 24th place finish in the 160-km French Championships in St Galmier last year.

"I've only been in the endurance about 2 years now," said Caetano, "but I think there are many things that make a good horse, not just one thing. You have to train good, you have to have luck, you have to have the good care. Some people say it is most important that you take your time with the horses, but I think the most important thing is to ENJOY what you are doing. ENJOY riding. ENJOY training. Because if you enjoy it, you take better care of your horses." All his horses, and Vasco's, were kind, people horses - were curious and liked to visit with us, liked the hands-on attention.

After this we climbed in Caetano's pickup and drove around his fields, and stopped to look at a herd of more stunning horses, many of them by Danddy. I thought I might try fitting the gorgeous 3-year-old black-gray stud colt into my huge suitcase... All of these horses looked very strong and stout, I think it will be impossible for them to not make an impact on the endurance trail over the next few years.

Caetano took us to lunch in the village, which was, once again, a huuuuuge meal; I ate and ate and ate and the dish never got any smaller. I couldn't eat anymore, but of course did not complain when cafe mousse was forced upon me for dessert. Followed of course by the strong short black coffee to prevent the food coma from taking over.

We were joined at lunch by Pedro the vet, and once again, the three men all chattered fervently about horses! Pedro said to Vasco, "You must say it in English!" which made Vasco pause to take a breath, and shake his head to re-think his speech, and Caetano laughed. "I think these two only talk horses" - trying to blame the equine fervor on the younger guys. I said "Yea, I think you do too!" seeing as Pedro and Vasco could sometimes not get in a word sideways to Caetano's stories. Pedro was just as ardent - he talked of putting on a clinic for endurance riders: "I think it is important that they learn things. I am a veterinarian, I try to help teach what I can." We talked about some of the Natural Horsemanship training methods and 'showmen,' and some of the good points of each.

By then it was already afternoon, and Vasco had other commitments. I was leaving in the morning, so my only choice was to return to Portugal soon and see some more of the wonderful hidden equine treasures Portugal is producing. Portugal may be small in endurance, but they make an impact, and I think that will only grow over time, if the horses I've seen are any indication.

A great thank to Vasco and his family, Antonio Saldanha, and Luis Almadas, for making my stay in Portugal so comfortable and enjoyable and horsey : )

See more of the horses at Portugal Horse Tour.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Evora, Portugal

Évora Portugal


I left Alpiarça today, following Antonio and Vasco and Manuel and a fine-looking Trovador, heading for Évora, an hour east of Lisbon. There Vasco and his family own a lovely little hotel, the Residencial Os Manueis, in the center of the old part of the city. I'd be his guest there a few days, and he'd take me around to see some endurance horses.

First, Évora: In the Alentejo Province of Portugal (the region south of the Tagus River - Rio Tejo), Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Much of the original old walls and buildings are preserved from Roman and Moorish times. The original fortress walls still surround nearly the entire inner town, and an aqueduct from the 16th century. The streets are cobblestones and narrow and lined with tall buildings; the newer buildings are often built into, over, or under the original buildings. The Templo Roman is a well-preserved Roman temple (Templo de Diana) from the end of the 2nd century, which sits in a plaza on a hill with a view over part of the city (it was the Raven's favorite); there are old arches, old churches and convents and cathedrals (one has a banner outside the doors, "Celebrating 900 years"), and a high aqueduct (which stretches for 8 km, and runs into the city) rectangular stone water tank from the 16th century.

It's also a university town with 8000 students; the University of Évora was formerly a Jesuit college built in 1559. The central square (which the hotel is a half block away from) was always a hive of activity - outdoor cafe seating, or, one day, a race for young boys through the streets of the town and into the square, and yet another day a big stage being set up for some event.

The Hotel Os Manueis was acquired by Vasco's family in 1952. It was remodeled just 3 years ago, and is an extremely comfortable, homey place, with a great view on the rooftop terrace. Start talking horses with Vasco or his father or his brother Eduardo, and you won't want to leave.

It gets up into the 40's here in the summer, but for now, the cool weather was perfect... even if you had to dodge the 15 minute rain showers throughout the day.

2008 Portuguese Championships CEI*** 160km

Saturday April 19 2008

It rained throughout the night, was raining when we left the hotel at 4:15 AM, and was raining when we arrived at the stables in Golegã half an hour later. Pedro, the vet for Antonio and Vasco, went to work on Trovador de Oliveirinha with a calming technique he learned from Michael Baxter, the physiotherapist in Germany, working mostly around his head and neck, using pressure and flexion. Vasco said last time that Pedro did this, their two horses were quiet at the start of their ride. Indeed, after Pedro had finished with Trovador, the horse stood there with his head and eyes and lower lip drooping.

Riders and crew began gathering around their horses, arranging rain gear and headlamps on helmets, and at 5:45 AM the saddling began. The rain had let up for the moment, but even in the dark you could feel the heavy clouds hanging over us. The horses warmed up around the arena - you could tell where Trovador was by his bellowing - he was awake now!

At 6:15 the lead car with its flashing lights led the 13 riders out onto the start of the ride, through the sleeping town of Golegã, shod hooves clomping on and echoing through the cobblestone streets. I was going to attempt to not get lost today following the ride. I jumped in my car and whipped into line behind Vasco - pure luck - and tore after the line of crew cars toward the first assistance point. We raced around the one-way streets of Golegã - Gaella and the French crew were now in front of me - and we ended up right behind the horses for a while. Then the horses went on out of the town, and we turned left and raced along a country road in the dark and the spitting raindrops. We come to a split in the road - where half the people went straight, half went right... which way to go? I couldn't see which way Vasco went; Gaella went straight, most cars went right... I whipped off to the right and raced after those cars on a one-lane road through some wetlands... and come to a traffic jam a mile down the road. It was the wrong way.

Everyone tried to turn around at the same time and and squeak by the other honking cars piling in rapidly after us. My car, and one other truck behind me had turned around quickly, so we broke free and raced back to the main road; I waved them past me at the turn, and they shot on ahead and I shot raced after them, yelling, "DON'T LOSE ME!" I had a map, but it made no sense to me.

The truck I was following pulled over in the next village, and they waved me in with them to a cafe for coffee. Yippee! My glass of water hadn't gone very far this morning. It turned out to be the parents of and crew for rider #12 Joao Pedro Filipe. We gulped down the coffee and jumped back in our cars, and my little rentacar Besalu sprinted right along behind them. We got to the first assistance point... and I sat in my car since it was raining. Some people set up their water bottles and stood out in the rain waiting for the horses to pass. Quite a dreadful day for a 100-mile endurance ride - wet, dreary, heavy dark clouds. Somewhere out there was a sunrise, but not in this part of Portugal.

The horses all passed through in a group here, pacing at approximately 15 km, and it was the usual mania of getting the best crew position, handing off water bottles at the run, dumping water on the horse (some offered water to drink), and the horse racing onward - even though it was raining. And afterwards we quickly jumped in our cars and raced on down the road to the next crew point, about 6 km from the Vet Gate. I chased after a line of cars that turned off the main road onto a muddy, potholed, waterlogged unpaved road (I am sure that Besalu, my rentacar, has never had so much fun as this endurance ride), where, if you were quick and clever, at the stop, you whipped a 180* turn so you were ready to peel out immediately after the horses passed through.

It was still raining, but lighter this time; everybody stood around waiting under raincoats and umbrellas, chatting. There was a tiny bit of blue sky that peeked out, so maybe during the day we would see some sunshine. The horses came through in a big group again, and the crews did their water thing, and then we jumped in our cars and raced on toward the Vet Gate. This would be the stop for all the Vet Gates and the finish - a big open barn on a working farm on the edge of the Reserva Natural do Paul do Boquilobo, a wetlands reserve through which part of the ride traversed. Bounded by the River Tejo and the River Almonda, it's the home to the largest colony of herons in the Iberian Peninsula, and over 200 other bird species. It's been named a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. The entire area is a lush green - obviously from all the rain - with red, purple, rust, pink, yellow flowers decorating the fields.

The horses sheltered under the roof of the open barn, on roped off segments with straw scattered for them to stand on. A local club had set up a booth to sell sandwiches, soup, beer, and coffee, and they were kept busy throughout the day.

Ten riders arrived at the first Vet Gate within 1 minute of each other, with Jose Pedro Filipe and Sardanisca vetting through first. Top speed for the first two horses was 13.4 km/h; Lourenco Machado on Rebeca was elimated for lameness at this gate. Carlos Ponferrada, the foreign FEI vet, said "I think this is a very hard ride. I drove over some of the course - much water, many holes, many rocks. Already the horses don't look so happy."

After a quick 30-minute hold, the horses were off again on the 26-km yellow loop. Instead of racing after everyone to the crew points on this loop, I thought I'd backtrack to a good spot to get the horses coming through the vineyards, as the sun was starting to come out at times, giving that great morning light for photos. But by the time I'd left the vet check, and backtracked part of the way then lost the route, and gave up and returned, most of the horses had already returned for the second Vet Gate. (And, turns out, I could easily walk to the vineyards much quicker than driving - go figure!)

Eight horses arrived at Vet Gate 2 within 3 minutes of each other, all keeping an over-17 km/h pace on this loop. All the horses passed the Vet Gate, with Ana Maria Barradas on Sheik leading the charge onto the red 25 km loop 3.

The same 8 front runners stayed together during loop 3 and again arrived within 3 minutes of each other, but here the smart pace of around 16 km/h and the tough going saw 5 horses eliminated for lameness, including British rider Valerie Clarke, and Japanese rider Mitsuko Masui on Jasmin De Lap, after a second trot out. Dropping further back - nearly 50 minutes and an hour behind the leaders, but maintaining a steady pace of around 13 km/h were the remaining foreign rider Yanada Yukio on Kiria, and Joao Picau Abreu on Spirit.

That left only 7 horses to go out on fase 4. The weather had improved somewhat in the rain department - blue sky and sunshine trading with dark clouds that did not always dump their heavy buckets right over us, but the wind had picked up, becoming quite gusty (annoyingly so) at times. It was certainly helping to dry out portions of the course, but other parts were heavy, or slippery, as especially the tracks through the vineyards became churned up at places. The horses knew exactly where home was when they trekked through the vineyards - you could see it just over there - and many objected to the 4 left-hand turns away from home, back up into the vineyards.

The same 5 front-runners came in again to Vet Gate 4, after 108 km, within a few minutes of each other, led by Pedro Godinho on Olimpico da Amieira. All completed their vet check and began their 40 minute holds. During the rest, the horses never lift their heads from their buckets, and some of them have crews who are constantly cleaning or massaging them. There was a compulsory re-examination before heading out on fase 5... and this claimed both Jose Pedro Filipe's Sardanisca and Antonio Saldaha's Trovador de Oliveirinha for lameness. I saw Sardanisca trot out shortly after, and we all strained to see anything. The vetting was likely quite strict due to the tough conditions underfoot. Antonio and Vasco and crew were disappointed for Trovador, but, "That's the way it goes," said Antonio philosophically. The good part of the adventure is that Trovador's metabolics were good, and the horse was strong throughout the ride, and the Portuguese selector would like to see the team at either Compiegne in June or Gubbio in July, as long as Trovador is ready.

This leaves only 5 horses to continue onto fase 5. Godinho, Joao Roposo, and Ana Margarida Costa keep up a strong near-13 km/h pace over the wet ground. Their horses all passed their vet exam, with Godinho's horse recovering fastest, giving him a 2 minute lead going out on the final loop 6 over Raposo, who left a half-minute before Costa. Joaoa Picau Abreu and Yanada Yukio, are now nearly an hour an 15 minutes behind. The crowd is waiting for the three leading horses to come in for the finish as Abreu and Yukio come in off their 5th loop. A great cheer goes up for them, and they laugh, knowing it's all in fun, and Yukio says, "Thank you, thank you," to everybody. Yukio has been smiling throughout his ride, obviously enjoying it, helping hold his horse Kiria at the Vet Gates while Gaella and the grooms cool her out. Unfortunately though, Kiria is asked for a second trot out, and she is eliminated for rear lameness. After putting out a great effort for 134 km, she is retired. You feel for the team - the Japanese riders coming from so far away, the French horses coming from 2-days' drive away... but that's how it goes in endurance. Yukio is still ever-gracious and smiling, thanking people for their help.

We then spot the first 3 riders making their zigzags through the vineyards; the finish line crowds with people, some of us squeezing under a little shelter as another heavy rain squall passes over us - one more drenching for the horses and riders. The finish line was a small climb up a sandy hill; here came the horses galloping the last bit up the hill, Godinho raising both hands in victory as Olimpico da Amierira came 6 lengths ahead of Ana Margarida Costa on Eros An Trinskell, who was several lengths ahead of Joao Raposo on Quinza.

The crowd moved to the crewing area to watch the horses cool down, and it took them a good 20 minutes before they walked in the vet gate. Breaths were held as the horses trotted out - all good, making Pedro Godinho and Olimpico da Amieira the 2008 Portuguese Champions. Meanwhile, Joao Picau Abreau and Spirit had a re-examination trot-out, and they headed out on their final 26 km loop, alone and into the dark, with a full moon rising.

Abreau and Spirit came in just under the cutoff time and passed the final vet exam, resulting in 4 finishers in the 2008 Portuguese Championship ride. While there was little to no change in altitude, the footing over much of the course was technical, especially with the large amount of rain over the last week. There's always luck that plays a part, and with the already daunting task of completing a 160-km ride in the best of circumstances, for most today, it was just not to be.

Golegã Vet In

April 19 2008

Framing the central arena and square of Golegã are stately Portuguese mansions - and hidden behind almost every one of them are big stables. Through a tunnel in the middle of one of these, the "Clube do Criador", the endurance horses for the Golegã ride were stabled.

This year's Portuguese Championships were put on jointly by the City of Golegã, the Feira Nacional do Cavalo, and the Federação Equestre Portuguesa. Thirteen horses and riders were entered - 10 from Portugal, 2 riders from Japan - Mitsuko Masui and Yanada Yukio, and Valerie Clark, who rides as British, though she's been living in Portugal since she was in her teens - she is in her 70's now and still enjoying endurance riding. Reining Portuguese endurance champion for the last two years, Ana Margarida Costa, was returning this year on a different horse. She said "Not this year!" when those successes were mentioned. Turns out I knew one of the horses in the ride, and in fact had ridden him in France on a training ride. Jasmin De Lap, one of two horses owned by Stephane Chazel, arrived with Gaella and two grooms from France after two 10-hour days of driving. They brought Jasin and Kiria for the 2 Japanese riders.

There was no mistaking team Trovador had arrived: Antonio's red stallion Trovador ("singer") da Oliveirinha trumpeted and hollered his presence to the whole city of Golegã. Vasco and Antonio and Manuel bedded him down on shavings in row of stalls completely separated from each other, so he wouldn't get into trouble. Trovador had recently completed two 120 km rides; this would be his first attempt at a 160 km ride. He certainly looked fit and ready, dragging his handlers around everywhere - and bellowing whenever appropriate (which was often).

All day we were dodging heavy rain showers. When it rains in, say, Seattle, you don't need an umbrella. When it rains in Europe, it RAINS - dumps buckets, big fat raindrops. Portugal is no exception. Some years in April here it is dry, some years it is wet, and this was one of those wet years. It had been like this for days, and that was the forecast for Saturday also - wind and rain. It rained much of the nights, and dark squall clouds continuously passed through and dumped 5 to 15 minutes of rain during the day. Riders were concerned it would make the trail conditions challenging.

Entry fee for the ride was 150 Euros, plus 50 Euros for the stabling. There would be 6 fases, the first one 30 km; the second, fourth, and sixth fases would be the same loop repeated at 26 km; the third and fifth loops would be repeated (and cover much of fase one) at 25 km. The last few kilometers of each loop would zig-zag through the same vineyards 8 times - up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down... it sounds monotonous on paper, and would become a mental challenge for the riders and especially the horses repeating this, when they could see that the vet gate was just over there, but they had to keep trudging through these vineyards. The footing through here would became more challenging as the day went on, also. Time limit for the ride was 15 hours 50 minutes (which included 3 hours and 10 minutes of hold times); pulse criteria 64 bmp after 30 minutes.

Some of the horses went for short rides around the arena, or were handwalked before the vetting in, which began at 4 PM, in another stable hidden behind the big doors of another mansion. The stalls here were full of Lusitanos who were quite excited by the presence of the Arabians walking around. The vets examined the horses inside an arena further inside the hidden stable area, the horses being called in by number in order.

The rider briefing was supposed to be at 6:30, but was moved back to 7:30; some of us hadn't eaten all day, so we went to a little bar near the square. Vasco ordered ham sandwiches for us, which turned out to be the size of small Volkswagons, and 7 of us were unable to finish 3 of them. The beer was nice and cold, and the talk was all horses. At the meeting, the officials presented the specifics of the ride with a power point presentation; and afterwards, tapas (though I don't know the word for them here in Portugal) and wine were provided.

Then it was back to the
Hotel Rural Quinta de Torre
, and early to bed... start time at 6:15 AM, which meant getting up at 4 AM.