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Peaking Above the Clouds

Tarbes doesn't quite nestle at the foot of the Pyrenees - it's a few kilometres away across a flat plain - but they certainly dominate the landscape. Unless you're in the town centre itself you're constantly catching a breathtaking glimpse at the most unlikely times. You turn out of the doorway of a cafe, or cross the carpark of a superstore and look up, and there they are, snow-capped, flattened against the sky, peaking above cloud level, somehow always managing to be surprising. Perhaps because Tarbes itself is so unmountainous. The Tarbes endurance ride doesn't involve any mountains as such, just something called the Cote de Ger; sharper than a foothill, but you wouldn't need oxygen or Sherpas to walk it, and your car will whizz up the hairpin road from bottom to top in a couple of minutes. If, on the other hand, you and your horse have to climb up and down it 10 or 12 times in the course of a 120k race, then you find it merits respect. Mix it with good sections of cantering, a variety of ground conditions - stony tracks, stubble fields, forest floor - and a regional climate that sees temperature and humidity rising steadily through the day - and you have a ride that, whilst not one of the great challenges, is testing enough. You have to have everything in place; you can't rely on scraping through.

Even though Tarbes is only a two-star event it attracts a healthy international contingent. In all, of the 47 who lined up on Saturday morning for the 'professional' class, there were 21 'etrangers'. Spain lies on the other side of the Pyrenees so there is always a good number of 'Espagnols' ready to contest once more the superiority of Spanish-bred Arabians over the French model. Recently, at least, the French have been winning this particular battle, thanks in no small part to 20 years of performance breeding. Spanish Arabians tend to be tougher and smaller but this area of France is where the Anglo Arab race was born and horses here, even the pure-breds, tend to be large, looselimbed ground-coverers easily mistaken for TBs.

This year the Qatari outfit who, like many of the Gulf state endurance teams, have a training establishment down here in the sunny end of France, entered nine riders. The maroon polo shirts and impeccable manners of the Qatar contingent have been in evidence at two- and three-star rides here for a few years, and for a while the tradition was that they would finish in darkness, their horses in superb condition having been ridden at a safe 12 or 13kph, while everyone else was tucking in to the post-ride supper. Now their apprenticeship has been served, they have engaged various satellite trainers, their crewing team is as slick as can be, and they are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Add the 30 entrants for the "amateur" class, all French, and there was a total of 77 milling around beneath the trees as 7 a.m. approached. With minutes to go the young Qatari rider of Camelot was kicked by Philippe Tomas' fired-up mare Shakeera, and he was driven off to hospital as one of his countrymen was hurriedly stuffed into jodphur boots to take the ride. Could it be that the Curse of Tarbes, until now directed specifically at teamnellie, was casting around for fresh victims?

teamnellie has attended this ride twice. In 2006 we brought a good horse down to do his first 120k, and stopped overnight 2/3rds of the way. Some kid broke into our car as we slept in it, having first loosed our horse from his corral, and made off with a bag containing laptop, camera, and the cream of a lovingly-assembled t-shirt collection, but not before knocking me down with his stolen BMW as I gave pointless chase. The Curse struck again this year by making the water pump on our car blow up just south of Bordeaux, with 200 miles to go. We arrived at our hotel around 2 in the morning to find it locked. So, having caught only a couple of hours sleep, folded into the seats of a tiny rented Renaut Clio in the company of Pigsie the World's Smelliest Small Dog, it was with jaundiced eye and unspeakable odour that we greeted the prospect of spending a day watching other people ride their horses. Maybe it would be better to hang around the venue, mark the progress of the day in coffee, lunch, chilled wine. Wander around the trade stands and stay out of the way of anything the Curse might want to throw at us in the form of, say, multiple pile-ups or rabid buzzard attack. Put to the test Nicky's theory that, with access to enough statistics, you could write a perfectly accurate account of a ride without actually having left the comfort and security of the catering tent.

This could be easily achieved as long as the ride you were "covering" was making use of Automatic Timing and Race Management Systems. ATRM is the fruit of many years' labour on the behalf of amiable bearded genius Francois Kerboul and his team of techies. I'm not going to pretend to understand how it works, but here's what it does: your horse wears a tiny transponder on its headstall which records its passage across the start and finish line of each section of the ride, and into the vet gate. Using ATRM's own software this information is processed to give the rider their time out onto the next stage, as well as the positions of all competitors individually and relative to the leader (i.e. horse A is in 6th position and 1m22s behind the leader); average speeds and lap times; time taken to present to the vet and cardiac frequency, all of which is available on printouts and visible on electronic screens. There's a dedicated wi-fi network that links lots of Asus Eeepc laptops, one of which is carried by the commentator so he can describe exactly what's happening in the vetgate. And it's planned to include more functions: 3-D geolocation which will show the position of each rider on a Google Earth-type image - only much, much more clear than Google Earth; the ability to warn them if they have left the route and, if several riders go wrong, suggesting a problem with marking, to set up an automatic warning for all riders as they approach the hot spot; and to tell if a rider has fallen or worryingly stopped moving on course, to contact them and send help to their exact location. Does this all sound like you'll be riding Robohorse? Well, it's not like that at all. Francois calls his system "the invisible heart of the game", and really, you wouldn't know it was there. It's fantastic.

The stats can't show you everything, though. They won't tell you that Yannick Berton calmly led his horse out of the stables after everyone else had left, calmly tacked up while it calmly munched some carrots, all as calm as could be, until his bum hit the saddle, at which point the horse went bananas as the crew scattered, wheeling and galloping and Yannick laughing off into the distance. I'm glad I saw that.

I'm glad I saw the horses cantering in groups across a field with the mountains in the distance, being led for the first two loops by Hadi Nasser Al-Ramazani, the boy who'd got the last-minute ride on Camelot. Camelot took the ride to the French which is a brave thing to do, especially when "the French" include Jack Begaud, Jean-Michel Grimal, Philippe Tomas, Sophie Arnaud - professionals, not in the sense of having paid extra for a Pro license, but because they make their livings breeding training and competing endurance horses at the very highest international level. Or Maurice Saint, 73 this year and still an aggressive competitor more than ready to get off his horse and run. Sadly Camelot was one of many who fell foul of the hard going, but in being lamed out he was in good company; Tomas, Arnaud - in fact, not a single French horse was eliminated for metabolics.

It was pretty good to see endurance horses racing through the lush gardens of the abbey of Notre Dame de l'Esperance. This monastery, founded by a pupil of Liszt, abandoned for a century or so, has been painstakingly restored by the current padre and a group of eight residential helpers, who raised the medieval-looking bell tower by hand. It's a little surreal, religious statuary set amongst succulents and palms and 100 year-old olive trees, and a beaming padre in white cassock who finds nothing unusual in having seventy horses cantering round the perimeter path. If you like ecclesiastical architecture there's also the Collegiale church at Ibos to ponder, hovering in the haze between the corn fields and the mountains.

It was good to see another Qatari horse who had headed the ride, Bentley NZL, come out of the third vetgate after the compulsory representation looking as if he'd just had his breakfast and was ready to beat some horses in a race, and it was good, out on the last loop, to see his rider get off and lead him when he didn't want to go down a hill. But it was sad to see just how lame he was when he got in at the end.

What was really great, though, was to see two horses - Kclown de Paute and Hadiyya al Doha - hit the long home stretch and race for first place after such a day, still full of heart and running. Hadiyya had been given a text-book ride. ATRM Systems read-out says it all: 9th, 6th, 4th, 1st, at 17.2kph, 18.0, 18.346 and 19.382 (giving a course average of 18.537kph). Times to present to the vet: 01:52; 02:43; 03:36. Cecile Toutain said she knew she'd won it five kilometres out but it looked close to us.

On our way over to the catering tent we stopped to chat to Christian Lozano, the ride organiser. The weather was fine, the ride had gone well. He's pulled in sponsorship from the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club, amongst others, and there's a beautiful trophy by local sculptor Scara for the winner. I asked if everything was going okay and he smiled at me, the smile of a man who knows that when a journalist asks that question what he means is "have there been any spectacular disasters for me to write about, like - I don't know - a pile-up? Buzzard attack?" "Except for the UFO which has landed in the next door field," he said,"Everything is fine. The question is, do they come in peace? I must go and speak to their captain." And off he went, still smiling. It's just we who are cursed. Tarbes is charmed.

Richard ALLEN