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Emirates Endurance Stable - Trainer Jaume (Juma) Punti

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If I were an endurance horse in the UAE, I'd want to be in Juma's barn. If I were a talented young rider, or veterinarian, or farrier... I'd want to work in Juma's barn. Focused, content, I'd even go so far as to say happy... this was the impression I had of the training stable of Juame Punti. The 37 year old Spaniard has been training horses for Emirates Stable - the stable of Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum - for the past 7 years. He currently oversees the training of 43 horses - the barn is bustling with spanish speaking riders. From Spain, Argentina, Uruguay. When I first drove up, the first person I saw was Ana Lia Mendez - the young girl from Argentina that I met years ago.

Ana Lia is the daughter of Hugo Mendez, the gaucho that works for my good friends Miguel and Celina Pavlovsky. She's been here since last fall, riding for Juma. I just can't get enough of this sport - the connection between people from around the world. It is one big family, whether you race in the Emirates, or ride turtle in the mountains of Wyoming, or ride FEI, or ride AERC or AERA, we're still kin.

I've been staying at the villa of Sheikha Madiya - she has a training stable on a piece of land that Shk Mohamed (her uncle) gave her to set up her own operation. Grace Ramsey is staying here also. Grace has been Madiya's mentor - trainer - supporter - for years. Madiya calls her 'mom'. Grace came to the UAE last week, she was asked to be Chef d'Equipe for the USA effort at the Presidents Cup. Everywhere we go, everybody knows Grace, and everybody seems to have a lot of respect for her.

Also staying at Madiya's villa (aka Hotel Madiya) were Bill Stevens and his daughters Heather and Jennifer, and also Ashlee Van Raalte and Brittany Dial - here for the Presidents Cup for Junior & Young Riders. Brittany's father Mark 'Cowboy' Dial lives nearby, he's here working full time doing farm consulting and chiropractic and body work on race horses. Cowboy was Chef d'Equipe for the Young Riders. Alice Proust (France) bounces back and forth between Madiya's and her various friends in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. She is another one that seems to know everybody, from years of working in UAE when the sport was just getting started in the mid 90's. Her stories of what it was like to live and work here as a young girl in her 20's are quite interesting... There's also Jerome, a young Canadian man staying here for a bit, a friend of Grace's - he's a farrier, looking to work in the UAE for a while to learn, experience, and sharpen his skills. Last night at dinner (Grace cooked stuffed Zucchini) he played his classical guitar - his own 'Flamenco Blues' style. Very nice. He's so young and enthusisastic. I imagine his time here will harden him a little, but it's really a fantastic opportunity for kids to come over here and work for a while. If one can handle the pressure, this is the center of the most professional - skilled - arena of the sport.

All of the kids and young adults that are working at Juma's stable seemed very happy - they work long hard hours, but seem to enjoy it tremendously and also realize what an opportunity they have. Plus the 'little Spain' of the stable must make them feel that they are 'home away from home'. Everybody there speaks Spanish with each other. They must find the common language- English- with the 'Boss' and staff. And also with the Pakistan workers that are so prevalent over here. But espanol reigns.

After I arrived at the barn Annalia called Juma to tell him I was here. I had arranged to visit his barn and have an interview of sorts. Juma is a bit of a legend here, he's been working for Shk. Mohamed for 7 years, that's a long time for a trainer to stay, and his results have been excellent. One of ten or so trainers for Shk Mohamed, his barn does well, and he also does well as a competitor. His height and weight keep him at a bit of a disadvantage over the lighter riders, but his horses are very often awarded Best Condition. Juma also competes in Europe during the UAE off season. He placed 4th at the 2006 WEC in Aachen. While I waited for Juma and watched the activity at the stable - horses in and out, walking, trotting in hand. saddled, walked to warm up, off into the desert. His training regimen includes a lot of walking and a lot of rest. When the horses are trained for speed, it is in short intervals. When they are being peaked for competition, they will train at just over the speed they are expected to compete in, but the mileage is kept minimal. The sand here is hard on the horse's legs. Even the best horses won't stay sound unless their miles of racing and training and speed are kept to a minimum.

When Juma drove up, out of his car also came more friends from Argentina! Elena and Geraldo Romero, the owners of Los Estribos and the breeders of RO Fabiola 'the world's fastest horse'. They are here for the Presidents Cup, and to see the many Los Estribos horses that are here in UAE, and to visit with the friends they have made through the business of Endurance. Juma took us on a little driving tour, showing us more stables and training tracks, new housing being built for trainers and riders and grooms, and then we had coffee and tea at his house. Great place - it was built by an earlier trainer who had a thing for Africa, and all of the decor was 'faux Kenya' - very nice actually, but a little odd in the Arabian desert!

We talked of his work here in the UAE,, how he got started in the sport, his observations of competition here, his plans. Juma started in the UAE in 2000 - they were just digging in to the sport - the physiology of training and competition, issues with soundness, issues with tack and shoes and all of that stuff. One of the first vets Juma worked with was Jim Baldwin - he had a lot of praise for Jim, I think together they did much good for the horses. He also had high praise for Dwight Hooten, who worked with him after Jim returned to the USA. During Juma's time here the speed of the sport has increased. Horses are now doing 120km races in 24 - 25 km/hr. And he thinks they may yet get faster. The 160km event speed record (RO Fabiola) is around 22km/hr. Everybody has their eye on this weekend's Presidents Cup as many will be trying to break that record.

If all of the trainers in UAE were as good, as smart, as Juma I would have a much better feeling about the sport over here. He does not waste horses, or riders, or staff - he is very diligent and hard working and studious. Most of the top horses in his stable are between 9 and 13 years of age. They give the horses time to mature. Horses that are brought over here too young, or started in the sport too young, rarely last, the sand and work takes a toll on their legs. In order to produce the best performing endurance horses, they must consider soundness, and must consider both the physical and mental maturity of the horses - the younger horses can loose heart if pushed too hard too fast. Plus they are very careful about not competing the horses too often. They are kept at a high level of fitness throughout the season, but only peaked for a few races each year. And most of the horses have a long period of rest during the off season. This is humane, and it is working for them. It may sound silly, but I swear even the horses at his barn looked happy. Not a dull eye there. They have group turnout in large paddocks, opportunity to play and socialized. Juma said that yes, there are risks to having the horses at liberty, turned out in groups, but the benefit of a healthy and content horse far outweighs the risk.

Juma has been involved in the sport for almost 25 years, starting as a 12 year old, eager to ride and to learn, even though his own family had no history with horses. He won his first race at the age of 20, on a mare that he rescued from the slaughter house, a mare that was too 'crazy' for anybody else. He had that 'look' in his eye when telling us about the mare, it must have been a special horse for him. Most of us have had that one special horse that changed the trajectory of our lives. I think this crazy mare must have been his arrow.

I returned to his stable in the evening, he suggested that I come over and see the horses as they put them away. Grace and Madiya went over with me, and Elena and Geraldo also came back over. We arrived while Juma and Maria were still out riding, the desert light fading, and the sun a huge orange ball. The wind had been fairly strong in the afternoon, and the dust and sand in the atmosphere can make the sun seem huge as it sets. This was one of those evenings. We waited for Juma, threw the ball for Lilly, Madiya's little Jack Russel Terrior, and watched as the stable came to life for the evening chores. Juma and Maria rode up on two gray mares, one of wich was a little worried about Lilly and her squeaky ball, but Juma stayed quiet in the saddle, saying 'it's ok, she's just young. she's learning'.

Maria Alvarez, the other rider, is a delightful young woman, a veterinarian specializing in lameness, also from Spain. She and Juma met in UAE, as she also works in the Endurance industry. She was also riding at the Ladies Challenge, both Maria and Sheikha Madiya were riding horses from Juma's barn, riding for Shk. Mohamed's Emirates Stable. When at the Ladies Challenge I didn't really know Juma, or his association here in the UAE, but was very impressed by the capable and effiecient job that he and his staff did while crewing for Maria and Madiya during the race. Those guys were good, and calm, and seemed to really be enjoying themselves while doing their most capable work.

After he and Maria unsaddled and took care of the horses, and all the other horses and riders and grooms seemed to come out of the woodwork for the evening chores... Juma gave us (Grace, Madiya, Elena, Geraldo and me) a tour of the barn - he brought out each of the top performing horses and talked about them, comments on attitude, conformation, strengths, weaknesses, heart, history, potential. Very fascinating. Every horse had it's own name tag on it's stall - name, age, breed and origin. Most of the horses were from France, also many from Australia. There were several horses from Uruguay also - tough rangey thoroughbred types. Big horses, and dark bays that he said seemed to have no issues with the heat becuase of their color. There were beautiful typey gray horses, short coupled powerful chestnuts, rangey bays, there was no single 'type' in the stable. Tall horses, short horses...It's the legs and the heart and the mind. And, I would add, the care and the training which is well above average at Juma's barn.

Juma's Team crewing for Sheikha Madiya at the Ladies Challenge: