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2007 Pre-Ride

2008 WEC - The Race

I think that this event represented the maturity of our sport at the International level. It was a very tight race - a tightly contested race. I'm not sure how much more advantage can be gained in future events by 'getting better' at any aspect of competition. With more things being equal (training, nutrition, crewing, strategy) we are beginning to see the true brilliance and athletic ability of the horse and the skill and horsemanship of the rider prevail.

The winning horse probably had the best advantage in terms of race 'smarts' - Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton has been competing and training for years at the highest level, based out of Dubai (Emirates Stable owned by Shk. Mohamed bin Rashid al Maktoum and managed by Jaume Punti) in the winter, and competing in Europe during the summer. Experience, flawless crewing, calculated pacing, skilled riding - all part of the winning effort. And when applied to a brilliant athlete, trained and managed to peak fitness and health, a winning combination. This was as close to a well earned win as I have ever seen when all parts are weighed. Maria was asked at the press conference what problems she encountered during the race. She smiled - grateful and incredulous - and said 'really there were no problems, everything went perfectly'. Certainly the stars were aligned for Maria and Nobby, but it was a well earned victory. She did not falter, did not get lost, did not have tack problems, Nobby did not lose a shoe, and she had plenty of horse left for the final leg when she was challenged by the riders from Argentina and UAE.

And then there was the surprising and equally brilliant Silver medal performance by the Argentine rider Augustin Vita and his horse Baraka Ibn Al Tamah. Where the heck did they come from?? I saw Vita and Baraka as they burst out of the gate for the final 10km leg. A full gallop, the horse looked incredible, and they covered the final 10km at a speed of 28km/hr - that's over 17 miles an hour - at the end of a 100 mile ride... And the horse recovered from the sprint in 13 minutes! Vita certainly didn't have the experience that Maria Ponton had, nor the money and backing that many other riders had, but he had the youthful courage (I believe he is 17 years old), the smarts and the riding ability to guide a brilliant horse to a second place finish. It was a surprise, and another testimony to this sport that you can't always buy victory! I talked to Carle Larerra (the Argentine Chef d' Equipe) a little after the race. He had high praise for Vita and the horse, grinning and shaking his head. He also said that much of Vita's (and therefore Argentina's!) success could be attributed to the excellent horses produced in Argentina, and to the very well supported Young Riders program. Kids start riding early, it's very much a family affair, there are always well attended Young Rider divisions, and they are given support and encouragement and congratulations at every opportunity.

The Bronze individual medal and Gold team medal went to United Arab Emirates. The UAE was a very well oiled machine. They earned their medals. Sultan bin Suleyem rode a superb athlete, Tazoul El Parry, he rode a smart well paced ride, and deserves credit for the mental toughness required to place so well in this challenging night ride. You can have a top trained horse, a top crew, the best of the best, but you still have to ride the horse, guide the horse, every step of the way. All of the UAE riders did a fine job. But I was greatly disappointed that the entire team did not show up for the Prize Giving the day after the race. Suleyem was there, and Mohamed Ali Subose was there, and the trainer was there - but that was it. The other team member HH Shk Majid al Maktoum had already left, as did HH Shk Hamdan al Makoum, the other riders and crew. There was a big hole in the middle of the podium where the UAE team spirit should have been, in my opinion.

But Qatar and Bahrain made up for whatever lack of team spirit UAE demonstrated on the podium. The maroon and white of the very proud and enthusiastic Silver Medal Qatar team, and the brilliant red and white of the proud Bronze Medal Bahrain team led by Shk Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa- they were obviously proud to be there and proud to be part of the World Championship. I have to admit that Qatar and Bahrain's victories surprised many. The UAE has been the dominate Middle Eastern country in previous International competitions, but apparently Qatar and Bahrain have been also working diligently and preparing their horses and riders and obviously have serious aspirations to excel in Endurance.

And what about the others? Portugal made a very very fine showing, only 1:30 behind Bahrain for a team medal, they finished four out of six riders, and they did this out of the commitment, skill and horsemanship of each individual. There is little Federation support for Endurance in Portugal, these guys financed most of the expenses of coming to the WEC (beyond the major expense which was born by Malaysia) out of their own pockets. They were stunning in their pure white shirts, proud of their flag, and their effort. And without a doubt they were the life of the party. Rui shipped 100 liters of fine Portuguese wine with the horses. These guys were fun, they were tireless, they were genuine and charming, and tremendously disappointed to have missed a medal by so little. Several of their riders got lost on one of the loops adding precious time to the total, and this and that ...and they were soooooo close! Whenever I think of them, I smile.

Chile - they did not finish a single rider, they were also quite disappointed - but they were without a doubt the best dressed team in Terengganu. Everywhere they went they had matching polo shirts, red or blue or white, always sharp, beautiful women, handsome men, they may not have won a medal but they turned heads everywhere they went!

Uruguay - perhaps they were cursed with whispers - "the fastest horses.... topped ranked rider... a good shot at the gold... their type of course" - all of it true, but it was not to be. And several new countries on the scene - Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica - they have much to learn, and Endurance programs yet to build, but they have started - and we all know that once we start this sport we can't quit it!

France - I still don't know what happened to France, the most consistent medal winners of the past decade. I did hear a little muttering about the state of the sport, the fact that the flat track courses aren't real endurance... who knows, but this was not their race.

USA - a huge disappointment in results - only 2 finished, and while the two that did finish (Valerie Kanavy and Kathy Brunjes) deserve congratulations, neither of them performed to their potential. They lost precious time at the first vet gate when their over excited horses took close to 30 minutes to recover. They rode to the Chef's plan, and performed well for their team, but between losing one rider to a violent flu episode, and having two riders experience a lightening strike, panicked and bolting horses, injuries sustained by both riders and horses... it was not their race.

Canada - go Canada! They did not set any speed records, but they finished 4 riders and a full team. They had difficulties the entire way with shipping and quarantine issues, delays, extra expenses, etc. But they did it, eh? Italy - a fine showing, not fast enough to earn a medal, but they finished 3 team members and ran a good race. Spain - for the second year in a row the individual Gold Medal went to Spain!

So many personal victories, and dramas, and hopes and disappointments. But the overall the mood before, during, and after the race was good, it was exceptional. Very little blame went around, people accepted the challenge, dealt with the unique food and language of the host country, learned to drive on the 'wrong' side of the road, enjoyed the beautiful beach, tolerated the rains, they did their best, and they paid great respect to the Malaysian effort. Malaysia went out of their way to take care of the riders and horses, and everybody recognized and appreciated that. There was much festivity, new friends made, more experience gained, and already everyone is talking about the next one!

that's it for now (I think),