Wednesday, June 11, 2008

2008 Ermelo - Dutch National Championships

Saturday June 7 2008

2008 Ermelo: the Dutch Championships

81 riders left the starting line today in a cool damp fog, beginning with 23 riders on the 160 km ride at 5:30 AM. It began as an uneventful, orderly walk out onto the road in front of the KMSH offices, and a trot out on the trail into the forest. The sun was not yet up, but there was plenty of light to see by, even in the cover of the forest.

32 riders started on the 125 km (15 of them in the Junior 125 km) at 6:30 AM; 19 riders started the 100 km (2 in the Junior 100 km) at 7 AM; and 7 riders (2 of them juniors) started the 60 km at 7:30 AM.

Officials marked down riders that went out, and checked them for their regulation FEI wear: collared shirts, vest turned the proper way, shoes with heels (this measurement will increase in 2009 - requiring a larger heel), stirrups with cages or safety releases. No riders in tank tops at this ride. Three of the riders in the 100 km ride were sent back to change their stirrups, and they almost missed the 15-minute time limit to start on course.

Forest and heide (heath) - that was the scenery for the ride, almost all on soft tracks, and, "not a stone anywhere," said one of the riders afterward. Despite the entire 6-loop course weaving around half a dozen large towns, there was a minimum of main road crossings (all of which were manned by ample volunteers, who stopped traffic), and negligible asphalt to traverse. The fog hung around till well after noon, which kept things muggy, but helped keep the temperatures down. When the sun did come out, it remained hazy and humid - at least 26* C; but big clouds passed over with a breeze, cooling things off, with a few of them threatening sprinkles. The shade of the forest was the coolest part of the ride; it was noticeably warmer in the white sand crewing and vetting area which reflected the heat. Some crews put up a tarp so their horses had shade to stand under during their holds.

All the distances did the 35-km yellow loop as their first. I went out on the trail just across the road from the venue, where the riders came across the heide. Arriving in first of all, clocking 16.7 km/h, was Dutch rider Roxanne Brouwer on her lovely 15-year-old bay thoroughbred gelding Chiruy. I have a thing for Thoroughbreds, and even though they are at a disadvantage to the Arabians, who were made for endurance, it's nice to see them competing. I like to watch the underdogs, the unusual and unexpected. For me in endurance that's the Thoroughbred and the Akhal-teke.

Following two minutes later were a strong group of Dutch riders: Anita Lamsma (a former Dutch Champion) on Layla Ara Francina, her sister Marjolein Voss on Black Magic, Jannet Van Wijk on Latino, and Marly Van Ditzhuyzen on Czarownica LB. Marly just celebrated her birthday two weeks ago: she turned 61. There aren't too many endurance riders around the world in their 60's regularly competing in 160-km rides, so you couldn't help but root for her also.

The riders from all distances came rolling steadily in... several horses and riders caught my eye. Looking particularly good was the gray gelding Paradise Ox, 9, with Blanca von Hardenberg of Germany, in 4th place on the 125 km. The four Akhal-tekes passed me, all with the same long-striding floating trots and rolling canters.

Leading on the 125-km distance was German Harald Braun on another Thoroughbred, 10-year-old Tango Lady XX; wearing a western saddle and curb bit, she cantered effortlessly on a loose rein with her head down like a western pleasure horse, while cruising along at an average of 17.5 km/h.

Riding in a group were five Danish juniors and seniors on the 125 km rides. Just like the orange Netherlands riders stood out, you couldn't miss the Danish on the trail or at the venue, with their Danish-flagged tent, red shirts, red tack, and their teamwork - as the day went on, as their riders fell from the competition, their cheering only got louder for those that were left, including the two riders in the 160 km.

At the first vet gate, while there was serious competition and crewing going on, there was a lack of franticness and tension that you see at many other rides in Europe and the UAE. It helps if you have plenty of space for crewing and vetting, and there always appeared to be enough veterinarians and lanes available for the inspections, with a minimum of waiting.

But there were no smiles, and maybe a few tears, for 12% of the field here - already 10 riders were eliminated from the competition for lameness (one retiring). One of them was the Akhal-teke Danagul. Owner Michele Van Kasteren said later that the mare had almost pulled a shoe off. Another to fall was Junior Lithuanian rider Samanta Loginovaite on her bay Karbardiner, Sport, in the 125 km; but she would still have 3 other teammates to cheer on in the 125 km races.

Loop 2 for all distances was the blue 35 km loop, the one that markings kept mysteriously disappearing from over the last few days. Nissan provided several vehicles for the Ermelo ride, and Zulu Liebenberg was out on the trail ahead of the horses in one of the trucks making sure the ribbons and signs were up. Other volunteers drove the course in front of or in the middle of the riders on other loops checking on markings, and later in the afternoon and evening, escorted some of the riders to the finish.

Coming into Vet Gates 2 and 3 in the 160 km, Roxanne Brouwer and her Thoroughbred Shiruy were still in first place. Following in nearly the same positions on both loops (Loop 3 at 30 km) were the same strong-looking Dutch horses, joined by three Germans, Michaela Kosel on Black Shetan, Veronika Grell on Piove, and Alexandra Lange on Erb, with the pace fastest of all on loop 2.

Leading on the 125 km at Vet Gate 2 was again Harald Braun and Tango Lady XX, but at Vet Gate 3, after 100 km, they'd fallen 5 minutes behind Blanca von Hardenberg on Paradise Ox. Dutch rider Yara de Boer led the Juniors.

Eight more horses were out of the competition at Vet Gate 2 - where some metabolic eliminations were starting to show, now that it was getting warmer with the fog burning thinner - including Genghis Khan, the Akhal-teke ridden by Hendriena Ritsema. Dutch rider Marjolein Vos retired Black Magic after she passed the vet check, but just didn't feel right. Nine more were finished at Vet Gate 3 including Carmen Römer and Eddie R - oh no! That left one Akhal-teke in the ride to cheer for, Janet Lam's Bugainvillia.

Meanwhile, the 100 km ride came to a conclusion with Germany's Stefan Zoeller winning on Antares, with Italian Marina Ceshchina (one of 2 Italians riding today) second on Koussaia.

The one distance that had a 100% completion rate was the Junior 100 km ride. Okay, so there were only two riders, but Elisabeth Loresch of Germany, finishing first on Stein Lina, and Jarmila Lakeman and Sattarov finishing second, took good care of their horses. After the second vet gate, Jarmila had said of Sattarov, "His back is not as strong today, so we aren't going too fast." Jarmila knows Sattarov well, having finished a 125 km and 120 km on him previously (besides numerous training rides). After the finish: "His last loop was his best one. He felt good and he wanted to go! So I am happy with him." They are qualified to be selected for the European Junior Championships in Olviedo, Spain, in September.

Loop 4: 25 km. On the 160 km ride, the Germans and Dutch traded off the lead. Brouwer and her Thoroughbred Chiruy were eliminated for lameness at the fourth Vet Check. Anita Lamsma's Layla was good at the preliminary check, and at the re-examination ten minutes before she was due to leave - until she trotted back toward the vet, and she got the hiccups, or thumps - and was eliminated.

Vet Gate 4 was also the finish of the 125 km rides... but not for three Germans and a Belgian rider, all eliminated at the very end for lameness. Dutch Yara de Boer easily won the Junior 125 km on Gitano Sumaya. Coming to the finish 2 hours behind Yara were two Lithuanian girls, in 6th and 7th places; their horses presented to the vets and trotted out soundly, to cheers from their home team. The Lithuanian team almost didn't make it to Ermelo, when the ferry they'd arranged was cancelled the day before they left, so they had to scurry to make alternate arrangements for the two-day trip. Half the team finished, and they all enjoyed Ermelo... they presented Eric with a thank you bottle of vodka upon leaving.

Blanca von Hardenberg and Paradise Ox won the 125 km ride. Underneath the helmet, Blanca is not just another endurance rider, and she is not just another endurance rider that worked for and learned from two-time World Champion Valerie Kanavy. At 45, she is an enterprising young woman about to embark on a challenging, visionary culture-project: in September she will begin a 10,000 km horseback ride from Dubai to Berlin, to raise awareness and understanding of other cultures and people. An ambitious project, to say the least, in the face of the wars that politicians and leaders are waging around the world, but perhaps something everybody can learn something from. She is encouraging endurance riders from around the world to join her on any part of her trip. But more on Blanca and her fascinating story later.

On Loop 5, what was a strong group of Dutch in the lead has become a strong group of Germans in front. Gabriele Forster and Michaela Kosel are first out, followed by Dutch Jannet Van Wijk, and German Veronika Grell. The pace has picked back up over this 19 km loop, and Van Wijk and Latino arrive first into Vet Gate 5. All day Latino has looked terrific on the trail and at the vet inspections. When this pair trots out, it's sometimes one of those cases of the rider detracting attention from her horse, though this is not because Van Wijk is clumsy or out of step with Latino. It's because Latino is barrelling along, his legs spinning fast and his ears pinned back, making Van Wijk run as fast as she can (with a surprised look on her face) trying to keep up with him. Kosel's Black Shetan looks tired at his trot out, and he needs a little convincing to go back out on the trail, but once he gets going, he moves right along; he looks stronger now than he did on earlier loops.

Two more are eliminated here at this next-to-last Vet Gate with lame horses - German Alexandra Lange, and last year's defending Dutch Champion, Yvonne Van Der Velde.

Thunder rumbles nearby, and a dark blue cloud is forming in the west as Van Wijk and Latino leave on the last 16 km loop at a canter. The smile has not left Van Wijk's face: she has a good chance of winning the race... though anything can happen on the last loop, or at the final vet inspection. How fast will the other riders come on? How much horse does she have left? How much do the others have left? Kosel, wearing a mask of concentration on Black Shetan, follows two minutes later in hot pursuit, and three minutes behind her, Veronika Grell and Piove. Don't count out Forster and Priceless Gold, who are another 7 minutes back. There's a gap of 20 minutes back to Russian Nikolay Melbard, which is too much to make up in 19 km. So it's down to the top four.

A crowd grows at the finish line, dominated by orange Dutch shirts. We get little reports as we wait: Van Wijk is in the lead by 500 meters; she is in the lead by 200 meters; Kosel has taken the lead; they are riding together changing positions; another rider is not too far behind. Finally we see two helmets bobbing over the hedge, and when the round the corner, it's Van Wijk and Kosel, side by side. It's not till they make the final turn for home they begin their last sprint for the finish line now crowded with cheering spectators.

Latino is in the lead, but blows the turn, taking Black Shetan wide with him. Latino continues going wide, and Black Shetan cuts to the inside. They straighten up together, nearly even, but it's Latino who has the jump, who has more gas. Van Wijk's enjoying every moment, a huge grin on her face as she bends low over her little gelding, who appears to be enjoying all the ruckus also, with his ears pricked forward and eyes wide as they race for the line. Kosel is still concentrating, and Black Shetan's ears are back as they grasp for the line... but it's all Dutch today, Latino and Van Wijk, leaping over the scary white finish line a length ahead of the Germans Kosel and Black Shetan, a rousing conclusion for a first class race.

A light rain has begun to fall in the evening sunshine, helping to cool down the heated horses and spectators. Veronika Grell and Piove cross the finish line 3 minutes later. All the riders weigh in, and then move with their crews and horses to the crewing area. Latino and Black Shetan both take ten minutes to present to the vet. Black Shetan goes first, and breaths are held as he trots away from and back to the vets. He looks tired, but he is sound - cheers for the little black stallion and Kosel!

And now Latino: it is so hushed you can hear the sprinkles falling on the sand as Latino and Van Wijk trot out... and Van Wijk's "Whoooaaa!" as Latino, ears pinned again, makes Van Wijk sprint beside him to keep up, back to the vet... and a chuckle from the crowd eases some of the tension. Then comes the intake and holding of breaths for the final poking and prodding of Latino...

And then the words, "Congratulations." Jannet Van Wijk and Latino are the new 2008 Dutch National Champions!

There were 10 more riders still in the 160 km, with 6 as yet to go out on their final loop. A steady crowd hung around the finish line all evening, which looked like a big family picnic in the grass with a big group of orange (the Dutch) and a big group of red (the Danish) and other guests. Getting a big hand for 5th place was the always-serious Russian Nikolay Melbard (though I am sure he was enjoying the Dutch ride), in 6th place 61-years-young Marly Van Ditzhuyzen, Tanja Van Willigen cantering home 8th bearing the Danish flag, Dutch rider Janet Lam on her Akhal-teke Bugainvillia in 11th, and 13th and last across the line, escorted by a Nissan truck, an ecstatic member of the Sturrus family, Karin Obink-Sturrus. It was Jahdamour's 6th attempt at a 160 km, and today it all finally came together, and they completed, at 8:50 PM.

It took another hour before the sun fell on another Championship ride in Ermelo, The Netherlands - but the stars still shined brightly over the new 2008 Dutch Champions, Jannet Van Wijk and Latino.

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