“The horse is paramount in this sport. All the rules are specifically geared to protect the horse. It might sound pretty harsh but, at the end of the day, the riders come second, even though they take the glory,” he said.
Horses are subjected to veterinary examinations throughout the race to monitor their health. For instance, the 160km Sultan’s Cup involves seven vet checks to determine if the horse is fit enough to go on to the next loop. If the health of the horse is not good or if it is lame, it will not be allowed to continue the race.
“Even if you finish the entire 160km of the race but your horse is not fit at the end of it, you will be eliminated,” said Liebenberg.
“At the European championship this year, the guy who crossed the line first was eliminated because his horse’s pulse stayed too high. He was supposed to bring the pulse down to below 64 beats per minute within 30 minutes, but his horse took 40 minutes, so he was eliminated,” recalled Liebenberg. “The rider has to know how to pace his horse. If he goes too fast, the horse might get worn out too quickly. The rider must know when to slow down and when to go faster.”
While this practice benefits the horses, it results in a race that is conducted at a rather leisurely pace at times, and can last an entire day. For instance, for the Sultan’s Cup this weekend, riders have a maximum time of 16 hours to finish the 160km ride.
The race starts at 4.30pm. The riders will ride through the night because it is cooler for the horses, and finish the race around noon the next day.
Special efforts have been put in to make this Sultan’s Cup a spectator-friendly affair.
“A special GSM tracking system has been put in place for the horses,” said event manager Azrin Zuhdi. “A map will be projected onto a big screen and spectators can see how fast the horses are moving, where they are and who is overtaking who,” she explained. “This will make the race more exciting and spectator-friendly, since we know where the horses are.”
Organised by the Sultan Mizan Royal Foundation, the Sultan’s Cup is an annual event that has been running for several years now. However, this year’s race is significant as it is a trial event for the FEI World Endurance Championship 2008, to be hosted by Malaysia.
“Malaysia has been chosen to be the host for the FEI Endurance Championship next year but under a condition by FEI (International Federation of Equestrian Sports). It will be the first time the championship is hosted by a tropical country.
“There is a technical criterion that we have to meet before we get the official confirmation to host the world championship race – 40% of the foreign riders and horses that start must finish the entire 160km within 16 hours.
“Since it is harder for the horses to compete here because of the heat and humidity, the Sultan’s Cup is a trial to see how the foreign horses adapt to the climate here,” said Azrin. The onus is now on the organisers to keep the horses fit before and throughout the race.
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