Thursday, September 23, 2010

New Zealand: Let the Games Begin

22/09/2010 11:31:30 a.m.

New Zealand's 2010 World Equestrian Games is about to begin in earnest, as the Kiwi endurance riders prepare to take on the best in the world. While the actual 160-kilometre race starts on Sunday, their games really start on Saturday, before the opening ceremony has even happened, when their horses will face their first vet check.

Endurance chef d'equipe Madonna Harris says it will be a testing time, although she has every confidence in her trio of riders.

“Of all the disciplines, this really is the toughest,” she says. “Throughout the race we present to the vets seven times.”

And at any time, if the horse's heartbeat doesn't come down fast enough or there is a niggle of any sort, a combination can be pulled from the race.

With just three in the New Zealand team, there is no room for error, with no chance of any team accomplishment if all don't finish the race. And the input of those supporting the riders is just as important as those on the horses.

“Our grooms have to be particularly adaptable and malleable to ensure we get through this,” says Harris. “After looking at the layout of the course and the vet gates, we've had to make a few changes to our strategies and learn some new techniques.”

The heat will be another big challenge for the endurance competitors, as will the mass start. Around 130 combinations are expected on the start line. Anxiety levels will be fever-pitch and that half hour before the race, and half hour into the race, can be make or break.

“Everyone is wired,” says Harris. “There are flags, banners and general mayhem going on – our riders just need to find an area and remain calm.” Combinations will do six loops of varying distances throughout the race – the shortest is 18 kilometres, and the longest 39.9 kilometres.

“This is a four star rated race and calls for courage and control.” That's the highest ranking, and only held at World Games of World Championships.

“As good as these riders are, they are completely inexperienced at this level, so it is a big ask for all.”

The Kiwi horses left New Zealand late August and have now acclimatised well. Harris says each is in peak condition and now ready to race. In recent days they've had plenty of attention, including the magic hands of New Zealand team equine physiotherapist Nikki Lourie.

Harris is picking a Spanish combination to take the individual and perhaps United Arab Emirates for the individual.

“But I am very confident about the quality of our own horses and our ability to ride at speed...we just need that bit of luck to go our way.”

The World Equestrian Games are being hosted in Lexington, Kentucky, and run through until October 10. New Zealand is represented in showjumping and eventing as well as endurance.

It is the first time the games have been held outside of Europe and will attract more than 800 riders from nearly 60 countries. It is expected to be worth around $US150 million to the economy.

For more news, photos and Blogs from the NZ Team make sure you check out the "FEI 2010 WEG", on the ESNZ website

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