Friday, September 14, 2007

2007 European Championship Qatar Challenge - wrap up

I'm finally home, back in our quiet little corner of SW Idaho. Time to get caught up, and reflect a little. I decided to go to Portugal for the European Championship partly to promote our latest venture into the web world of Endurance (EnduranceEurope.Net), partly because the USA had decided to field a team to Portugal and I wanted to be there to support that effort, and partly because this event would be - from an FEI Endurance perspective - THE major competition of the year. Europe's best, and also the Middle East's best. Which is basically the world's best. The organizing committee offered a hotel room, press pass, all that stuff - so it was a pretty easy decision. Plus Merri Melde would be over there, finishing up her European summer endurance tour, and could focus on photography while I focused on the event, updates, coverage, etc.

And yes, this event was indeed a fierce and compelling competition. A race, not a ride. And it wasn't just a few that were racing, everybody was maintaining a competitive pace, fairly close to the front of the pack. The winning time was 8:22. The slowest time was 10:46 - only a 2 hour spread between first and last over a 100 mile course. The top 12 riders finished within 30 minutes of each other, and 50% of finishers were within 1 hour of the winning time. I don't recall any World Championship that has been this closely contested. Four UAE riders left the final vetgate in first position, at least 10 minutes in front of the next horse. In the final results, all but one UAE rider was passed - by France and Spain - doing the final 27k phase (16miles) in one hour.

Europe has dominated Endurance from a medal winning perspective (France in particular) during the past decade, and the Middle East (UAE in particular) has dominated the sport relative to speed records and funding for training and research. And as it turned out, UAE dominated the European Championship at the speed level - first in and out of every vetgate, and first - fastest - across the finish line. Likewise France took home the medals - individual gold and team gold for the continental championship. There were some very impressive horses at this event as well as displays of impressive horsemanship.

The UAE team held together, all six riders, until the very last vetgate when Sh. Rashid's horse vetted out for lameness. They still had 5 riders in at this point. One of their team members, Sh. Ahmed was set back during the first loop with a thrown shoe, but gradually moved forward during the ride hoping to salvage a team medal. A few hundred yards from the finish the UAE team effort collapsed when Sh. Majid's horse fell. The spectators saw the fall, and the ensuing rush of people (both UAE and Bahrain support crew) down the finish stretch towards the accident, and the dust from the vehicles approaching from the access road, and the hovering helicopter, but we never saw the horse and rider again. Eventually we saw a horse ambulance retrieve the horse, and heard that the horse was ok, just superficial injury. But that was that for the UAE team. So close! And I had found myself cheering for them along with others - they seemed so unified, so focused on the team effort - and definitely displayed good manners and horsemanship during the event. They did manage to hang on to the individual gold in the open division, but just barely, and the effort cost another finish when the first of the two UAE horses across the finish line failed to pulse down in 30 minutes. There were two more UAE finishers, in 5th and 16th place, for a 50% UAE completion, but not the team.

France was, well, as usual, amazing. The team effort was focused and though they lost a team member early on, they did manage to finish 3 team members for a team Gold. Jean Pierre Frances closed the gap during the final phase and just barely (6 seconds) beat Spain's Jaume Punti at a finish line sprint. It was definitely a race for the Gold. In February of this year I spent a day at Jaume's UAE based training stable. Jaume is one of the trainers for Sh. Mohamed bin Rashid al Maktoum (here's the story ) and it would seem to be no accident that both Jaume and Maria Alvarez Ponton (who rides/trains with Jaume) did well. They have an extremely tight, focused, disciplined training program in the UAE, and I imagine that their own stable in Spain is just as well run.

I also kept close watch on the USA effort. They are truly to be commended for making the effort - time, money, preparation, travel, etc - to field a team to compete in Europe. If the USA is to get back into the game of World endurance competition, the best way to do so is to experience first hand what the sport has become. This is not the same playing field as it was when we were dominating the sport and winning the medals. This is serious horse racing - full time, wholly committed training - and giving it all during the race. The USA came here to compete, not to 'just get around' and they gave it their all. And were still in the game, up until the final vetgate, where all of the horses vetted out for lameness...

I asked Vonita Bowers (the USA Chef d'Equipe for this event, and the Endurance discipline director for USEF) what her take on it was. She said "We did not go just to get around, so we were riding at a speed that could put us in striking distance of a placing. I thought for the most part the riders did this well. We are not as prepared (trained/conditioned) as it takes to run with the UAE and the French. In the end we needed 16 more good miles out of the horses and we just didn't get it." Vonita also said that this effort, this learning experience, underscores the need for a permanent coach and Chef d'Equip, one that is "with the riders from the beginning of their preparation for an event until the event is over."

Vonita also said that she felt that the USA has the quality of horses that it takes to field a winning team, "The USA has within its borders some excellent prospects. I continue to believe it doesn't take brilliant horses to win a team medal. I think it takes good horses with the proper conditioning and training. It takes good riders that realize that they don't know it all - riders who are willing to be coached. It takes a level of dedication and a degree of selflessness that we have not exhibited in the past. I am convinced that winning is within our reach if we have riders who are willing to do what it takes."

So, yes - conditioning, training, discipline, time, money - this is now a full time sport for many, and that full time commitment certainly shapes the outcome. Altogether, the event was very well run. Huge sponsorship, tremendous press coverage, almost to the level of past WEC's. A big deal race.

Congratulations to all -

Next for me - the Sultans Cup Terengganu Challenge - horses and riders being shipped from around the world to test the 2008 WEC course. FEI wants a 40% completion rate (I think that's about what Portugal ended up with). The Malaysians want to prove to the world that championship level Endurance can be done in Malaysia. All of us want a fair trial, cool heads and healthy horses.


Full European Championship Coverage

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