Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Kroon Wins North American Endurance Championship after Return from Iraq

November 10, 2005, by Jennifer Nice

Veteran endurance rider Karen Kroon didn?t consider herself primed to win the Individual Gold medal at the 2005 FEI North American Endurance Championship (NAEC), but she did it anyway, thanks to her horse and her crew. Ten months ago, Kroon, of Cheyenne, WY, was a long way from home, and the thought of competing at the NAEC was equally distant in her mind. While other riders were preparing for the NAEC, Kroon, a public health officer for the Air Force, was in Iraq, where she had been on active duty since January, while her horse Rokket stood idle in Maree McAteer?s pasture in Colorado.

Kroon was still in Iraq when longtime friend and Mountain time zone team chef d?equipe Holly Ulyate of Larkspur, CO, corresponded with her about nominating for the team. ?I knew if she got back [in May] she could get Rokket ready by October,? said Ulyate. Kroon agreed. However, by the time she returned from Iraq, Rokket hadn?t competed since winning and earning the best condition award at the 2004 Arabian Nights 100-mile ride in August, in a blazing time of 7:57 for his first 100-mile.

?I knew he was strong going into that ride,? Kroon recalled, ?and I was fairly fit, so I thought he would do well. He sailed through every vet check and just kept going. Everything went perfectly, and the horse looked like a million bucks at the end of the ride.?

Despite the long lay-off, Kroon felt that her horse was actually in better condition this summer than she was. During the five months overseas, Kroon had lost much of her endurance riding fitness and gained about 30 pounds that Rokket would have to carry. This worried her. In preparation for her demonstration ride, Kroon took the 11-year-old gelding to two 50-mile rides in July and August, winning and earning best condition at both, before returning to the Arabian Nights ride for her demonstration and first FEI ride.

?As it turned out, he wasn?t in that bad of shape, but I still wasn?t in as good a shape as I had been the previous year.? The duo finished third in 9:22. ?I didn?t feel like it was his best ride, because of me,? she admitted. "Also, it was rockier than last year, and he got a little sore, so I backed off toward the end to make sure we finished.?

Five weeks later, Kroon and Rokket made the 36-hour trip to Maryland. A record to be proud of, Kroon is no stranger to competition and winning. The veteran endurance rider has logged 10,150 American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) miles since competing in her first ride in 1977 as a teenager. She won her first 100-mile ride, the Big Horn 100, in 1981, with Wizard, a Witez 11 grandson and her first horse. In 1983, Wizard started and finished 13 rides with 13 wins and 12 best condition awards. Since 1985, when the AERC began archiving individual ride results, Kroon has started and completed 23 100-mile rides, finishing all but one in the top 10, and earning 12 wins and 12 best condition awards. Also since 1985, she has logged 116 completions in 120 starts, with 72 wins and 56 best condition awards. In 1997, she earned the National Best Condition Championship with Gonzin.

Kroon purchased Rokket as a five-year-old from Jay Mero in New York. ?[Jay] had him advertised in Endurance News, and I really liked his breeding,? she said of the half-Polish, half Rushcreek-bred horse. She started competing on Rokket in 2001 and has accumulated 865 AERC miles, with 16 starts, 15 completions, eight wins and seven best condition awards. She described the stocky, 15.1-hand gelding as an easy keeper. ?He likes the vet checks because he really likes to eat, but he also likes to get back out on the trail," she said.

Once in Maryland, Kroon worried a lot. ?I was concerned about the footing because it was raining; and my horse had to stay in a stall, which he hated,? she said. ?I tried to pre-ride the last loop on Thursday and got hopelessly lost. That got me worried, too, as I have a reputation for getting lost.? At the pre-ride briefing, Kroon's mind eased somewhat when she learned that the last loop she had tried to follow hadn?t been marked yet, and wouldn?t be until ride day. ?Ride management did an excellent job,? she later commented. ?The trail had to be the hardest trail to mark that I have ever seen. I think there were a hundred miles of ribbons out there.?

Management also had concerns about the trail prior to race day. ?We were worried about the footing,? said Ground Jury President Mike Tomlinson, DVM. ?We had alternative plans if the footing got bad, but as it turned out, the trail master got the trail to be safe. It was technically challenging, but safe. It was also marked well."

For the ride, Kroon didn?t have a specific strategy. ?I knew my horse was really good and so I figured I would ride him at a good pace and see what happened.? When she left the first vet check, there were no more than six riders ahead of her. By the second vet check, she was within two minutes of the leading group. At about the 40-mile mark, she and teammate Tracy Webb took the lead.

?Tracy wanted to back off, so we went pretty slowly,? recounted Kroon. ?Shortly thereafter, we got caught by a big group of riders. At that stage in the game, I hadn?t wanted to go any faster, as there wasn?t anyone ahead of us, so [Rokket] got a little bit of a rest," she said.

Kroon was somewhat critical of Rokket?s recoveries at the vet checks. ?His recoveries were not what I usually expect from him. He got a little hot, and he?s not used to having so many people around him. But most of [his recoveries] were around five minutes,? she said, adding that his CRIs were good throughout the day, even dropping at the finish check.

Halfway through the ride, she and Dominnique Freeman, riding Stagg and Cheryl Newman?s Jayel Super, paired up and eventually took the lead. Freeman lives in La Honda, CA, but was riding for Great Britain. ?[Ride management] had a really nice finish,? said Kroon. ?We turned up the last three-quarters of a mile. It was a nice grassy uphill and Dom and I galloped that pretty fast, but under control. Then we had a sharp turn to make onto the track. After we made that turn, I let Rokket go and Dom chose not to race me. Earlier, Dom asked me what I wanted to do at the finish, and I told her I couldn?t answer that until I knew what was going on with the team. If we?d still had a team in, I probably would not have raced in.?

"Rokket galloped to the finish with his head in the air and his tail up over his back,? Kroon described. Their winning time was 11:45. She admitted that it was a nice feeling to win. As much as she would like to nominate to compete at the next world endurance championship, Karen said that her duties with the Air Force make it difficult to make the commitment at this time.

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