Tuesday, September 11, 2007

FEI: FEI European Endurance Championship: Barroca d'Alva

FEI Report
FEI European Endurance Championship: Barroca d'Alva (POR), 8 September 2007

France proved invincible over the coastal plains of Portugal taking both the European team and individual championship. UAE rider Mubarak Khalifa Al Shafya became the new Open European Champion crossing the line with the 11-year-old gelding Zakah Zahara, a minute ahead of Jean Phillipe Frances, who won the European title with Hanaba Du Bois. Spain’s Jaume Punti Dachs and Maria Alverez Ponton broke a new record becoming the first husband and wife team to stand on the medal podium, Jaume taking the European silver medal and Maria taking the bronze.

The French team victory saw the team regain the European title they last held in 2003 over entirely different terrain at Punchestown in Ireland. Together with the World Championship the title gives France a stranglehold over the sport’s international silverware.

However, the win came at the 11th hour as until the final few hundred metres, victory had seemed certain for the United Arab Emirates. Portugal had been a happy hunting ground for the team as it was at Elvas/Badahoz that the UAE won the inaugural Open European title in 1999. The UAE team had ridden together and led the field all day with a lead of more than a hour in the team contest. Despite losing Sheikh Rashid at vetgate five, four UAE riders had the finish line in their sights until disaster struck on a bend just under a kilometre from home in view of a bank of thousands of spectators lined up at the finish. Sheikh Majid’s horse Kevin de Narthou appeared to spook at some irrigation pipes and fell. In the ensuing melee, two UAE riders, conscious that the French team were closing fast, continued, Sultan Bin Sulayem crossed the line first with Nashmi, but the horse did not pass the final vetting giving victory to team mate, Mubarak Khalifa Al Shafya, team trainer to Sheikh Mohammed.

The increasing success of the Middle Eastern countries was signalled with a silver medal in the open team competition for Bahrain. Spain took bronze in the open team event and silver in the European contest where Switzerland joined France and Spain on the podium continuing the team’s medal winning streak begun at the 2005 European Championship in Compiegne.

For Jean-Louis Leclerc, who succeeded the late Pierre Cazes as chef d’equipe of the French team, the win for the squad of Sophie Arnaud, Virginie Atger, Phillippe Benoit and Pascale Dietsch, represented the moment when he was able to stamp his own mark on shaping the success of the team. Preparation had been assiduous – the French team arrived had travelled down to Portugal in August and based itself in similar conditions, 200km from the venue in order to acclimatise.

He put much of the team’s success down to solid preparation, the gentle acclimatisation of the horses and to a close-knit team spirit. But he paid tribute to the achievement of the squad saying they had achieved “great things” at what he described as a difficult championship.

“Throughout the day it was very hot. The track itself was difficult. The temperature rose to over 30 degrees during the day and it was very humid. The terrain changed throughout – from being very fast to being very hard to being very soft and deep and was not to be underestimated. To cope with changing conditions through the day, there were too many changing parameters to stick to a single strategy for the event from the start. The riders had to adapt their tactics to the changing circumstances throughout the competition.”

Reflecting on the team’s success he added: “I would say that this was a true championship because the track was hard and there were lots of very competitive teams. The strength of the French team cannot be underestimated – it is hugely satisfying.”

Jean-Philippe Frances, a professional rider and trainer, said: “I was bowled over by the mare’s performance. She was perfect, she adapted so well to the changing conditions particularly to the rising temperature. I never expected this to happen at this level. Last summer I had come to the pre-ride and that served me well [the pair came second]. It was really important to alternate the allures and the sols which was the distinctive element of this track. In terms of heart rates, Habana was one of the best – it really was her day, she is the best!”

Mubarak Khalifa Al Shafya, who began training for Sheikh Mohammed just a month ago, secured the UAE's fourth open title in succession with the 11-year-old gelding Zakah Zahara. Nonetheless he said he was disappointed that they couldn't complete the double and said: "I'm happy to have won the gold for the UAE but disappointed we lost the team gold after coming so close to winning it again”

There were 36 completions from the field of 88 starters – a pass rate of 40% which is the average at championship level. Six teams including the host nation, Portugal in fifth place and Great Britain in sixth place, earned the distinction of completing with three riders. There was disappointment for the USA, seeking to make a breakthrough at international competition after dominating the sport in its early years, with all three riders failing to complete .
The championship organised by Paulo Branco, vice president of the Portuguese Equestrian Federation, won praise for its smooth running from officials. Bo Kjellgren, president of the appeal committee said: “The competition was excellently organised and went well with a spirit of fair play throughout.”

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