Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Stage Is Set

The transformation from a country club to an endurance village, while not complete, has reached a point of being fairly convincing. The tennis courts are covered over and temporary stalls are there for horses from Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and I imagine Egypt. The Egyptian horses and the Saudi horses are in the neighbourhood but I believe will be moved in after the vet check tomorrow afternoon. The trail has been set and a map will be available tomorrow as well. Basically, the cast is here, the stage is set, and the production starts tomorrow.

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Yesterday (Friday) morning I had some clients in from the UK who wanted to do a long ride, so we left the farm early in the morning to ride to the lake at Dahshur, about 20 km south of here. This is a glorious ride through the desert with views of about twenty pyramids in various stages of disrepair and marvelous long stretches for canters (ok, actually gallops) across the sand. The vistas of pyramids were a bit surreal, however, due to heavy fog and as we rode part of the trail that had been set for the race, I found myself wondering how the riders were going to be coping in the fog at 5 am on Monday. The flags are set far enough apart that they weren't that easy to see in daylight, much less in the dawn murk of a Nile Valley fog. Maybe the riders will be relying on cars to lead the way; we'll see. I told my clients that they could go home and brag that they'd ridden at least part of the Pan Arab championship trail. Once I got home and finished my lesson and farm chores, I went to the nearby farm where the Egyptian team has been working and training. There are seven horses from which they will be choosing six for the race, most of them from stables near the Giza pyramids, and two from farms in this area. They are all locally bred and trained, unlike the horses from the Gulf and apparently Syria. I don't know about the Saudi horses' origins yet or the Jordanian.

At the farm, I received a call from a young vet friend of mine who is here with the UAE team. He was just finishing his training in Egypt when we were having our first races here and subsequently got a position in Dubai where he's worked for the past seven years. This year he was sent with the UAE team to supervise the horses for his employer, the Maktoum stables. Unfortunately, the mobile phones from the UAE weren't on roaming and had no reception, so he needed to get a new sim card for the grooms. Late at night, this is no place to be hunting for a sim card so I offered him a spare phone for the night...what a terrific excuse to be able to see the UAE horses up close and personal. What terrific horses. Beautiful creatures with the kind of spirit that horses at this level of competition should have.

This morning after dispensing with my farm work, I ran down to the club again to see how things have changed. I found the Bahrain team waiting on the grass in front of the vet gates for the horses and riders who had been out trying part of the trail in the desert. Rumours are that with the usual rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Dubai being submerged in the alliance of the two teams for the UAE, the fight to watch is between Bahrain and the UAE. The quality of horses definitely supports the rumour. I asked a couple of the riders what they thought of the trail and they were not wildly thrilled with it. Was it the trail itself or the footing? Definitely the footing is the issue. Deep sand covered in flint is not any racer's idea of wonderful. One young woman suggested that it could be seriously improved by grading it to eliminate the patches of deep sand and rocky sand, but I pointed out that since most of the race is taking place in Antiquities Department land, the authorities were most unlikely to appreciate the suggestion. Bulldozing unexcavated antiquities is not recommended in Egypt...not even for an important endurance race.

Given that the climate is not really ripe for changing the footing of the trail, I asked what the riders' strategy would likely be and was told that they were going to have to ride a much more careful race than they might otherwise do. They'd brought many of their best horses to this race and didn't want to see them injured. It will be interesting to see what the footing issue does to the conduct of the race.

As I was leaving the "barn" on the tennis courts I encountered one of those very Egyptian scenes, the tennis pro and some helpers tightening the net on the one surviving court. Whether they were expecting to play a game there with the possibility of a wild shot bouncing through a couple of million dollars worth of horses or not, almost doesn't bear thinking about.

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