|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