Monday, September 27, 2010

Big Money Bolsters Equestrian Endurance Race
Published: September 26, 2010

Sunday’s race, won by María Mercedes Alvarez Pontón of Spain, took 100 horses and their riders across a Kentucky landscape of tobacco and thoroughbred farms as competitors tested the stamina and grit of their prized Arabian horses.

Much is made of the long ride, but seasoned competitors know the race is often won or lost when horse and rider are not on the course. The endurance competition is as much a Nascar race as it is a horse marathon: a winning strategy often plays out in the rest period between the race’s six loops, when riders cool and relax their horses so they can pass a range of medical tests and advance to the next stage as quickly as possible.

Teams left little to chance during Sunday’s race, which is on a par with the Olympics among endurance riders. As soon as riders pulled their horses into a cooldown area, grooms worked in tightly choreographed motions, yanking saddles and dousing the animals with buckets of ice water. Horses cannot move to the mandatory veterinarian check until their heart rate drops below 64 beats a minute.

“The more quickly he passes through, the faster he will leave,” said Jean-Louis Leclerc, the chef d’equipe, or team leader, for the French team. If a horse does not cool down quickly enough, “you can lose four or five minutes and then you have to make up the time later.”

Maintaining such expert crews takes deep pockets, and for several top competitors, that is not a problem. The modern-day sport of endurance riding began in the 1950s in California, but an influx of money from Arab royalty in the last decade has transformed it into a pastime of kings and sheiks. The royal families of Qatar, Bahrain and Dubai maintain vast stables of horses that have been bred and conditioned for the epic rides as well as high-performance centers devoted to the sport.

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