By Brian Sosby
Long before the sun rose over the first day of competition at the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Aachen, a flurry of activity was going on as the stage was set for the first medal decisions made in the equestrian discipline of endurance. The consensus is that today’s championship served as the biggest in the sport’s interesting development and history, and the fact that temperatures didn’t make it much past the mid-60 degree range were a blessing to those who had feared that the heat that Germany saw weeks ago might wreak havoc in a sport where weather conditions can send the placings into a scramble.
Crews, horses, riders, inspectors and a contingency of blurry-eyed spectators woke up the proverbial rooster. Riders and their mounts took off under a dark rose-colored early morning sky just outside the Main Stadium near the start of the cross-country course. The 100-mile route saw them traverse a mix of terrain and territory through three countries – Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium. The teams took off en masse at 6 a.m.
At the end of the long haul, it was 34-year-old Spaniard Miguel Vila Ubach and the eight-year-old Arabian gelding, Hungares, to cross the finish line first in a time of 09:12:27. Over the nine-plus hour ride, Ubach and Hungares averaged a pace of 10.8 miles per hour (or 17.38 kilometers per hour). He steadily climbed the rankings over the course, always leaving something in the tank, from a first gate finish of 47th to 33rd to 21st to 16th to 8th to his final victory.
Throwing his helmet into the air just after clearing the line, his expressions and tears told the whole story. Prior to his win today in Aachen, Ubach was listed at #86 on the FEI World Ranking of endurance riders.
In April 2006, Ubach won the CEI Three-Star Cordoba ride in his home country. He acknowledged that his competition today was tough, saying, “I knew all the best riders in the world were here from the U.A.E. and France.” An enthusiastic and appreciative crowd cheered and clapped as the pairing claimed their place as the first World Champion to be crowned at the 2006 WEG. “I can’t believe it,” he said in a downpour while still standing on the victory field.
For France, who was favored going into the competition, it was a double-medal haul after the rain-soaked challenge. French teammates Virginie Atger and her eight-year-old Arabian gelding Kangoo d’Aurabelle took the Silver medal while her compatriot Elodie Le Labourier and the 16-year-old Arabian gelding Sangho Limousian brought a Bronze-medal finish.
Atger and Le Labourier road neck-and-neck to the finish. There was no charge to the end. Instead, each rider crossed it with acknowledgement to the other in a display of sportsmanship.
The Gold medal in the team competition was won by France. The Swiss team finished in Silver-medal position, and the Bronze medal went to Portugal.
The American Effort
Finishing lead among the American contingent was Maine’s Kathryn Downs and her 10-year-old Arabian gelding, Pygmalion. Entering Gate 1 at 50th place, the pair climbed in the rankings over the morning to stand at 20th at Gate 2. They continued their effort, improving their standings by five spots to land at 15th by the time they entered Gate 3. They held their own, slipping down only two placings by Gate 4 and finished their 10:06:27-hour journey at 15th place.
Second spot for Team U.S.A. was filled by New Jersey’s Meg Sleeper, DVM, and her14-year-old half-Arabian gelding Shyrocco Troilus. The pair sat at 68th position after Gate 1 was cleared and jumped an impressive 24 spots upon checking in at Gate 3 to sit at 34th position. They continued their climb, pushing past another 11 riders to come in at 23rd at Gate 4. Final times and results were not available due to computer problems in the main press center.
California’s Jennifer Niehaus and Cheyenne XII, the 14-year-old Arabian gelding, stepped into competition as the first alternate. The pairing cleared Gate 1 in 75th; Gate 2 in 81st; Gate 3 in 75th; and Gate 4 in 69th. Niehaus and Cheyenne XII’s results were also not available due to computer problems in the main press center.
Illinois’ Joseph Mattingley aboard his SA Laribou (an 11-year-old Arabian gelding) made it as far as Gate 4 before being eliminated due to lameness. The pair had put in a respectable effort crossing Gate 1 at 78th; Gate 2 at 83rd; and Gate 3 at 70th. Their elimination left only four American riders in the running.
American Christoph Schork from Utah, who rode his eight-year-old Arabian gelding, Taj Rai Hasan, was pulled at the last vet check. Across the day, Schork and Taj Rai Hasan sat at 64th place at Gate 1 and 74th at Gate 2. From that point, the pair pushed forward, jumping 34 places to come into Gate 3 at 40th position, but they slid back a bit in the standings to land at 57th leaving Gate 4.
Team U.S.A. Chef d’Equipe and former WEG Endurance Champion Valerie Kanavy lent her extensive experience and advice to the U.S. team. One point of advice she shared with the riders just prior to the start of the ride…”Don’t get kicked.” The start of the race resembled a packed charge of Bedouin riders taking off.
More Than Just A Race
In the sport of endurance, horse-and-rider combinations face not only the extreme distances, but a series of what are known as vet gates – mandatory stops on the race where the riders dismount and the horses are checked by a veterinary crew. The condition of the horse is paramount in continuing along the long distance course, and it is at the vet gates where the horses are held for inspection. Among the many criteria checked at the vet gate are the horse’s heart rate, temperature and other metabolic factors, as well as general condition and soundness. Riders approach the predetermined vet gates and dismount, allowing the horses to access water and nourishment, plus it allows the riders to replenish their own needs. The findings of the veterinarians are recorded on the vet cards (including the riders’ arrival and departure times). A horse may be declared lame and may be withdrawn from the competition.
At the World Championships, individual and team medals are presented. A single horse-and-rider’s time is used to determine the individual champion. The team championship is decided based on the combined times of three predetermined “team score” members.
Two vet gates were established along the ride, with teams crossing them more than once. Vet Gate 1 was situated at Dreilanderpunkt (where horses were inspected after loops 1-4) and Vet Gate 2 Soers (for loops 5-6).
Endurance was officially welcomed under the umbrella of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) and recognized as an international horse sport. Centuries ago, Bedouin tribes placed bets on endurance-type races. Just over a century ago, German and Austrian military officers held similar races between Vienna and Berlin. Today, endurance has seen an explosion of interest with numbers growing impressively in the United States.
For complete time listings and all endurance scores, visit http://www.endurance.net/2006wec/results/index.html