Saturday, March 10, 2007

Royal Kedah International Invitational 2007

Big day in northern Kedah state, Malaysia - the 79th birthday of the Sultan of Kedah, and the first Royal Kedah International Invitational Ride, (an FEI 120km ride, an 80km ride, and, Saturday morning, a 40km ride), with visting dignitaries. The King of Malaysia (Steph's friend) would not only be here, but would ride in the 120km ride.

Opening ceremonies started at 3 PM on Friday. It was another warm (I'm being very optimistic here) day in Malaysia. Barbara, who helped organize this entire event, said the heat was awful, and she felt and looked about like me - liquefied. She's from Malaysia and said she's not used to this kind of terrific heat either, so I guess I'm not being too melodramatic. Guests started arriving at the big outdoor open tent, mingling, reintroducing themselves to everybody. Steph and John knew many people from previous rides here in Malaysia. There were big rotating fans spraying a fine mist to help circulate the hot air. Standing right in front of one felt nice!

Arrival of Foreign Dignitaries began around 3:30; you could see the police escorts pulling up, and the dignitary was announced. The last two were: His Royal Highness Al Sultan Almu tasimu Billahi Muhibbuddin Tuanku Alhaj Abdul Halim Mu adzam Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Badlishah, The Sultan of Kedah Darul Aman, and His Majesty Seri Paduka Baginda Yang DiPertuan Agong Al-Wathiqu Billah Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin Ibni Almarhum Sultan Mahmud Al-Muktafi Billah Shah - the King of Malaysia. (You reckon they ever just call each other "Joe" or something?) As soon as each of the Royal visitors stepped out of their cars, they were mobbed by press, and quickly ducked into a side tent out of the heat, presumably waiting for the rest of the dignitaries, and the Sultan and the King before the ceremony could begin. Finally it did, with a little procession leading them up the yellow carpet to the stage. The King and the Sultan of Kedah led the way, followed by (I hope I don't get this wrong, and I will probably put them in the wrong order, which is probably a big faux paus) another Malaysian His Highness Tunku Haji Abdul Malik Ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Badlishah (The Raja Puan Muda of Kedah Darul Aman), Prince Rashid from Qatar, Prince Abdullah from Saudi Arabia, and Sheikh Sultan from Abu Dhabi and a host of other important people. The King shook hands with people as he walked up the aisle, and everything and everybody was easy and comfortable, none of the frenzy we Americans tend to shower on politicians. I wonder how we'd react if we had a King?

After the National Anthem and the Kedah State Anthem we sat down while the event was inaugurated, with some long speeches, in Malaysian. Every once in a while, my ears picked out "Agong" (King) and "Mizan" (the King's name) out of the speeches, but that was it. They didn't say kuda melintas (horse crossing) or terima kasi (thank you), the only four other words in my Malaysian vocabulary! A group of men in orange, red, and green traditional Malaysian dress presented the Sultan with a golden horse head that he placed on the large RKII Ride 2007 plaque, which officially opened the event.

Then it was off to the stables to get ready for the start of the 120km and 80 km rides starting at 5:30 PM. Since Steph was riding one of Peter Toft's horses, she'd be riding with Peter and Penny in the 120km. Their goal was just to get the horses around the course, as a training ride for the next Malaysia ride in June. There may have been some unsettled nerves, but everybody I watched looked like they were just saddling up for a group trail ride.

The starting line was lined by a festive orderly mob. Policemen kept a path clear for the horses to cross the street from the stable to the starting area. I wandered around taking pictures, took a few of the riders I'd met here. At the start, some took off at a smart trot at the word go, while some just strolled on out, picking up a leisurely jog. It was very hot and humid, and it wasn't going to cool off any for the entire ride, even when the sun went down. After they were well off, it crossed my mind that I missed King Mizan - I completely forgot he was riding! He was even number 1! Some kind of photojournalist I am! Maybe it was partly because there was absolutely no fuss around him - he was just another rider out there. Can you imagine if an American president wanted to ride endurance? Think of how many bodyguards would have to learn to ride, and how many horses would have to be trained to ride in formation along the trails, and how we'd have to give up the trail and to make way for the Security Service Herd to pass. Nobody could congregate around water troughs till They were done, the vet check area would be cordoned off and we'd have to lose valuable time and wait till the President's crew passed through Their vet check, and if some of Their Horses didn't come down we'd have to keep waiting... etc. It's great the King of Malaysia can just go out and enjoy riding by himself without an entourage.

It would be a couple of hours before the first horses began arriving back off the 32 km first loop, so Carol and I wandered around the park beside the lake. There were lots of people and families out - while Saturday and Sunday are observed as the weekend in most of the rest of Malaysia, Friday and Saturday are the weekend in Kedah state.

The first 120km rider came in under two hours along with an 80km rider, seemed like a pretty quick pace for this heat. These first two, and in fact, many of the horses I've seen here, have a lot of what looks like Thoroughbred in them. Big long heads, bigger bodies, a heavier way of going. But, maybe they handle the humidity better than Arabians. It took these first two about 15 minutes to pulse down, and by then, other riders had steadily started streaming in. Most riders hopped off at the start/finish line, had help pulling their saddles, and the grooms would walk them straight to the cooling down area and get busy: many hands pouring water, scraping water, pouring more water, hosing them between the hind legs, checking their heartrate. There was ice available in buckets; towels were dunked in them and laid over the horses' necks. It's got to be hard to get the temperature of a big body down when there's no relief from the heat and humidity. Most of the horses looked quite good coming in.

Just as the last of the evening sun was fading, the King came in off the first loop. This time I didn't forget about him, but now of course my camera was having a hard time focusing in the near-dark. Steph and Peter and Penny came in just after him, as did the two Dutch girls Barbara and Jenne. Leonard from Belgium preceded them by about 20 minutes, but his horse was off at the vet check. Steph's horse was going well, but Penny decided to pull, because although her horse felt good, she was stumbling too much, which wasn't usual, and the trail was only going to get trickier in the dark - and it was now dark on the trails, with jungle noises coming alive. Big frogs out there.

Later we heard the King also pulled; his horse was off. We were expecting our riders to come off the next 25k loop around 11 PM. There were still a ton of people out, strolling the park grounds, sitting in the rows of chairs across the street from the start/finish, and a never-ending stream of cars and motorbikes flowing by in both directions. A colorful festive Malaysian weekend night.

Peter and Steph and the Dutch girls all arrived together right around 11 PM, and all pulsed down right away, though it was still very warm. I don't know how those horses (or riders!) do it - all day from the moment I stepped out of our air conditioned hotel, I'd been hot, clammy, sticky, wilty. They just all carried on, like endurance horses and endurance riders, as if it were a cool day in the park!

During this hold, Barbara's horse wasn't eating, so she decided not to go back out. The other horses pigged out for their 40 minute hold, then they were saddled back up and headed out into the steamy darkness again.

Since John was crewing for Steph, and Penny for Peter, and Leonard volunteered to stay, Stan and Carol and I caught a ride home (i.e., I wimped out - all I could think about was a cool shower) with our two tired liaison officers Shah and Neo. Those boys (all of them, and the girls) are great - always there if we needed them. Need to change your flight? Tell Shah and he's on the phone to the person who can do it or will know who can do it. Want to go shopping? Tell Shah. Need snacks or sports drinks a half hour before the ride starts? Tell Shah. Need iced coffee and something hot to eat for when you come off the 2nd loop? Tell Shah. Want to catch a ride from the hotel next morning back to the ride venue? Shah will arrange a driver, and get up with you and take you there at 6 AM, (this ride was not for me!) and pick up breakfast for Steph and John on the way. I said to Shah, "I bet you will sleep for a week when we all leave!" He said "I think that I will sleep for a month."

So I got a good night's sleep at the hotel while Steph and Jenne completed the ride with 20 minutes to spare. Peter pulled before the last loop, didn't like how his horse was going. Steph and Jenne flew the last loop in the just-coming dawn. Steph really liked the horse she rode - good, strong mare, nice ride. She said on the first loop there were literally thousands of Malay people out to watch the horses and riders pass... probably chiefly to see their King ride by. She felt like she was in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, everybody cheering and clapping and yelling and waving. And at a water stop at a busy road crossing, at 4 AM, there were the King and his vet, just hanging out waiting for his horses of the Royal Stables to all pass by.

Next, after a few hours of much needed Saturday sleep for the riders and crew, will come the Closing Ceremonies beginning at 3:30 PM... where the Raven gets to meet Royalty!

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