Thursday, July 19, 2007

French Nat'l Championship, St Galmier - 160 km Ride

St Galmier Int'l Cup 164 km – French National Championships

Saturday July 14 2007

Lights are on at the Hippodrome de St Galmier by 4:15 AM. Horses are getting tacked, pens for the vet checks are getting set up on the grass, claims are being staked in the crew area with buckets and barrels of water. All loops are out and back into the venue (basecamp), winding over trails and roads through the French countryside. There are 6 loops of 35 km, 30 km, 20 km, 29 km, 30 km, 20km (2 of the loops are repeated), with 40 minute holds at the first 4 vet gates, 50 minutes at the 5th with a compulsory re-examination, and the pulse has to be 64 within 30 minutes of finishing. All riders carry a minimum of 75 kg.

Horses were getting saddled, were out being led around to warm up - it was a nice cool morning... but not cool enough for anybody to stiffen up, and not damp like yesterday morning. As it got to be 4:50 AM, horses moved onto the track for the start, circling around; riders calling out, horses whinnying, crews and riders making last minute tack adjustments. I recognized a face from Malaysia – Essa Hamed Al Mannai from Qatar. Amazing for me to recognize anybody with a helmet on in the first place, and in the dark no less! He recognized me at the same time, and we said hi. He was riding with a group of 4 other Qataris, all of whom started together at the back of the pack, and were there to just complete the 160 km ride for the experience, not to race.

Also riding among the 22 foreigners were two Omanis, Jamal Al-Baloshi and Saeed Ahmed. Frenchman Denis Letarte trains endurance horses for the Sultanate of Oman and coaches these boys. Oman started endurance 5 years ago, then quit, then started up again a year ago, with Denis training for them. He now spends 7 months a year in Oman, 5 in France. They have 6 of the endurance horses here in France now; Jamal and Saeed were riding two of them, the first 160 km ride for the boys. Jamal used to be a jockey for flat racing until he had a bad injury – he has a few plates in his head - and he doesn't ride flat races anymore.

A few years ago a friend said to him, “Come, we are going to do a 20 km endurance race.” Jamal didn't understand. “How can the horses race for 20 km?” But they rode slowly, trotting and cantering, and would stop along the way: “Now we go to the vet check.” “What? What is a vet check?” That was his first mysterious experience with endurance riding – but now he likes it, though he still prefers the speed and excitement and quickness of the flat races. “They are over in 2 minutes, and here you are in the saddle all day!”

Herve continued his musical French commentary until the countdown for the start at 5:00 AM: “Cinq – quatre – trois – deux – un – They're off!” (whatever that word is), and 54 riders took off on the blue 35 km loop, out of the stadium into the countryside around Saint Galmier. Motorcycles pre-rode the trail, and a quad ran along right in front of the leader. When there was a big gap, another quad led the next group; and a quad or motorcycle escorts the last horse in off the loops. Nobody wears butt packs with water bottles here because they see their crew on the trail every few kilometers! It was not quite light yet, so some riders wore torches on their helmets.

Right after the start, I ran to the van that took our group of photographers and other spectators around the course. I grabbed the front seat, in preparation for the wild and crazy driving to come, but this time, our merry driver was not so wild and crazy, and we didn't follow all the crew cars, instead strategically plotting a course that kept us out of traffic and away from crowds. We stopped on a bridge over a river for our first picture-taking spot; the sun was not yet up but the eastern sky was glowing orange, and framed the silhouette of the riders and horses coming over the bridge. Two riders were far ahead of everybody already, Michel Meunier Carus, clipping along at over 20 km/hr, and Michel Denayer at 19.5 km/hr. Waves of riders came over the bridge; then there was a gap, and then waves and waves of assistance cars came over the bridge! Followed by more horses and cars.

After more quiet photo stops away from crew points, we headed back to the venue. Large numbers of riders were already in, or coming in, many of them together, creating the beehive activity in the crew areas cooling down the horses, and lines in the vet check area.

On the jaume (yellow) second loop of 30 km, we stopped at the top of a hill for photos. One rider came by and said something in French, which had to be “Smile!” French photographer Yves Riou confirmed it when I asked him. I said “We say 'Cheese!' for photos. What do the French say?” He said “We say 'Cheese!' also. 'Fromage' would just not sound right!”

On the 3rd 20 km loop, we drove up behind Yannick Berton, now one of the leaders, who had stopped at a water trough. Photographers Jules and Yves said to the driver, “Stop!” and they jumped out to get Yannick's horse drinking from the trough. But by the time they had gone out, Yannick was leaving, so they called him back. Yannick laughed and gave up a few precious ride seconds to come back and put his horse to the trough for the photographers. We jumped back in the van and followed Yannick down the dirt road, and then we came to a little river crossing, which Yannick took his horse into. We all tried to jump out for the picture, but by the time we got out, Yannick was on his way, and he wasn't turning around this time.

No problem, we walked across the bridge and set up on the other side for those great shots of horses plunging into the creek, water spraying everywhere... and here the riders came... and they all took the bridge! Every one of them! We laughed, and took other shots, and were joined by another photographer Brigitte Huard – who'd gotten her car stuck at the other end of the hay-stubble field. As we were talking, Jules yells “Hey!” - there came two riders into the creek! We ran and fired off a few pictures, then watched the rest of the riders go over the bridge. We gave Bridgett a lift to her car, and the 3 big strong men pushed her car as she drove it, out of the field.

Alex Luque and his horse Atiklan were looking good, keeping up a 17+ km/h pace. The team of 4 Qataris were still moving steadily along at the back of the field, though Abdullah Towain's horse would vet out lame at the 3rd vet gate. The Omanis Jamal and Saeed were progressing steadily too.

Yannick Berton on Menacer was still in the lead by 4 minutes arriving at the 3rd vet gate over Maurice Saint and Michel Carus. Two-time leading FEI World-ranked rider and previous French national champion Jack Begaud, riding Kheopsy Du Pilat was stalking the leaders, ten minutes behind Yannick, with Virginie Atger, second in the 2006 Aachen World Championships, just behind him riding Kaena.

Berton was still in the lead by a minute over Schwartz arriving for the 4th vet gate, and they arrived together at the 5th vet gate; but it was Celine's horse that recovered faster, and left on the final 6th loop first. Jack Begaud and Virginie Atger left shortly after in hot pursuit.

Fifty minutes later here came the first finishers: Yannick Berton in front by a mere 30 seconds,
with Celine Schwartz not racing after him, trotting in across the finish line. Officials would blow a whistle to announce the approach of finishers, to clear the track of spectators and crew, which was a handy thing, because the next finishers, Jack Begaud and Virginie Atger came racing in, with Jack finishing just ahead of her. The top four were busy in the crew area, cooling down their horses, as Jean Luc Riou came in across the line 5th.

The top finishers took their horses to trot out for the vets – Celine Schwartz's horse completed, Jack Begaud's completed, both to big cheers... Yannick's horse was questionable! There was a murmuring of dismay from the crowd around the vet ring. The vets had him trot out again, and yes, he was definitely bobbing his head a little. Big groan from the crowd, and still a round of applause – the horse had still run a very fast 160 km race, averaging 18.74 km/hr, and he deserved a big hand for his great effort.

Nicolas Vazquez and Marc Couffin also raced in for (now) 5th and 6th. Alex Luque came in on his horse Atiklan in 16th place, completing his horse's first 160 km. Atiklan had lost a shoe on the first loop and the 4th loop, but the shoes were replaced and he continued on down the trail. He looked great trotting out, and Alex and Bernie were elated.

The riders continued coming in to the finish – the Omanis were out on their last loop, and the Qataris were just about to go out on their last one – as the Best Condition judging was held, and then the award ceremony for the top 3 finishers. Since Yannick Berton vetted out, Celine Schwartz was the winner – the new French National Champion, with Jack Begaud in second place, and Virginie Atger third... and they were hauled into the arena by pretty donkeys pulling carts! Jack Begaud, the big guy, got the littlest cart.

Trophies and medals and flowers were presented to the three, and then the Best Conditioned horse was announced: Jack Begaud's Kheopsy Du Pilat. Jack took him for a trot out around the arena to the cheers of the spectators. The last 4 finishers, the Qatari team, came in together just before 9 PM, concluding the 2007 French National Championships in Saint Galmier.

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