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Merri Travels

2008 Portuguese Championships CEI*** 160km

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Saturday April 19 2008

It rained throughout the night, was raining when we left the hotel at 4:15 AM, and was raining when we arrived at the stables in Golegă half an hour later. Pedro, the vet for Antonio and Vasco, went to work on Trovador de Oliveirinha with a calming technique he learned from Michael Baxter, the physiotherapist in Germany, working mostly around his head and neck, using pressure and flexion. Vasco said last time that Pedro did this, their two horses were quiet at the start of their ride. Indeed, after Pedro had finished with Trovador, the horse stood there with his head and eyes and lower lip drooping.

Riders and crew began gathering around their horses, arranging rain gear and headlamps on helmets, and at 5:45 AM the saddling began. The rain had let up for the moment, but even in the dark you could feel the heavy clouds hanging over us. The horses warmed up around the arena - you could tell where Trovador was by his bellowing - he was awake now!

At 6:15 the lead car with its flashing lights led the 13 riders out onto the start of the ride, through the sleeping town of Golegă, shod hooves clomping on and echoing through the cobblestone streets. I was going to attempt to not get lost today following the ride. I jumped in my car and whipped into line behind Vasco - pure luck - and tore after the line of crew cars toward the first assistance point. We raced around the one-way streets of Golegă - Gaella and the French crew were now in front of me - and we ended up right behind the horses for a while. Then the horses went on out of the town, and we turned left and raced along a country road in the dark and the spitting raindrops. We come to a split in the road - where half the people went straight, half went right... which way to go? I couldn't see which way Vasco went; Gaella went straight, most cars went right... I whipped off to the right and raced after those cars on a one-lane road through some wetlands... and come to a traffic jam a mile down the road. It was the wrong way.

Everyone tried to turn around at the same time and and squeak by the other honking cars piling in rapidly after us. My car, and one other truck behind me had turned around quickly, so we broke free and raced back to the main road; I waved them past me at the turn, and they shot on ahead and I shot raced after them, yelling, "DON'T LOSE ME!" I had a map, but it made no sense to me.

The truck I was following pulled over in the next village, and they waved me in with them to a cafe for coffee. Yippee! My glass of water hadn't gone very far this morning. It turned out to be the parents of and crew for rider #12 Joao Pedro Filipe. We gulped down the coffee and jumped back in our cars, and my little rentacar Besalu sprinted right along behind them. We got to the first assistance point... and I sat in my car since it was raining. Some people set up their water bottles and stood out in the rain waiting for the horses to pass. Quite a dreadful day for a 100-mile endurance ride - wet, dreary, heavy dark clouds. Somewhere out there was a sunrise, but not in this part of Portugal.

The horses all passed through in a group here, pacing at approximately 15 km, and it was the usual mania of getting the best crew position, handing off water bottles at the run, dumping water on the horse (some offered water to drink), and the horse racing onward - even though it was raining. And afterwards we quickly jumped in our cars and raced on down the road to the next crew point, about 6 km from the Vet Gate. I chased after a line of cars that turned off the main road onto a muddy, potholed, waterlogged unpaved road (I am sure that Besalu, my rentacar, has never had so much fun as this endurance ride), where, if you were quick and clever, at the stop, you whipped a 180* turn so you were ready to peel out immediately after the horses passed through.

It was still raining, but lighter this time; everybody stood around waiting under raincoats and umbrellas, chatting. There was a tiny bit of blue sky that peeked out, so maybe during the day we would see some sunshine. The horses came through in a big group again, and the crews did their water thing, and then we jumped in our cars and raced on toward the Vet Gate. This would be the stop for all the Vet Gates and the finish - a big open barn on a working farm on the edge of the Reserva Natural do Paul do Boquilobo, a wetlands reserve through which part of the ride traversed. Bounded by the River Tejo and the River Almonda, it's the home to the largest colony of herons in the Iberian Peninsula, and over 200 other bird species. It's been named a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. The entire area is a lush green - obviously from all the rain - with red, purple, rust, pink, yellow flowers decorating the fields.

The horses sheltered under the roof of the open barn, on roped off segments with straw scattered for them to stand on. A local club had set up a booth to sell sandwiches, soup, beer, and coffee, and they were kept busy throughout the day.

Ten riders arrived at the first Vet Gate within 1 minute of each other, with Jose Pedro Filipe and Sardanisca vetting through first. Top speed for the first two horses was 13.4 km/h; Lourenco Machado on Rebeca was elimated for lameness at this gate. Carlos Ponferrada, the foreign FEI vet, said "I think this is a very hard ride. I drove over some of the course - much water, many holes, many rocks. Already the horses don't look so happy."

After a quick 30-minute hold, the horses were off again on the 26-km yellow loop. Instead of racing after everyone to the crew points on this loop, I thought I'd backtrack to a good spot to get the horses coming through the vineyards, as the sun was starting to come out at times, giving that great morning light for photos. But by the time I'd left the vet check, and backtracked part of the way then lost the route, and gave up and returned, most of the horses had already returned for the second Vet Gate. (And, turns out, I could easily walk to the vineyards much quicker than driving - go figure!)

Eight horses arrived at Vet Gate 2 within 3 minutes of each other, all keeping an over-17 km/h pace on this loop. All the horses passed the Vet Gate, with Ana Maria Barradas on Sheik leading the charge onto the red 25 km loop 3.

The same 8 front runners stayed together during loop 3 and again arrived within 3 minutes of each other, but here the smart pace of around 16 km/h and the tough going saw 5 horses eliminated for lameness, including British rider Valerie Clarke, and Japanese rider Mitsuko Masui on Jasmin De Lap, after a second trot out. Dropping further back - nearly 50 minutes and an hour behind the leaders, but maintaining a steady pace of around 13 km/h were the remaining foreign rider Yanada Yukio on Kiria, and Joao Picau Abreu on Spirit.

That left only 7 horses to go out on fase 4. The weather had improved somewhat in the rain department - blue sky and sunshine trading with dark clouds that did not always dump their heavy buckets right over us, but the wind had picked up, becoming quite gusty (annoyingly so) at times. It was certainly helping to dry out portions of the course, but other parts were heavy, or slippery, as especially the tracks through the vineyards became churned up at places. The horses knew exactly where home was when they trekked through the vineyards - you could see it just over there - and many objected to the 4 left-hand turns away from home, back up into the vineyards.

The same 5 front-runners came in again to Vet Gate 4, after 108 km, within a few minutes of each other, led by Pedro Godinho on Olimpico da Amieira. All completed their vet check and began their 40 minute holds. During the rest, the horses never lift their heads from their buckets, and some of them have crews who are constantly cleaning or massaging them. There was a compulsory re-examination before heading out on fase 5... and this claimed both Jose Pedro Filipe's Sardanisca and Antonio Saldaha's Trovador de Oliveirinha for lameness. I saw Sardanisca trot out shortly after, and we all strained to see anything. The vetting was likely quite strict due to the tough conditions underfoot. Antonio and Vasco and crew were disappointed for Trovador, but, "That's the way it goes," said Antonio philosophically. The good part of the adventure is that Trovador's metabolics were good, and the horse was strong throughout the ride, and the Portuguese selector would like to see the team at either Compiegne in June or Gubbio in July, as long as Trovador is ready.

This leaves only 5 horses to continue onto fase 5. Godinho, Joao Roposo, and Ana Margarida Costa keep up a strong near-13 km/h pace over the wet ground. Their horses all passed their vet exam, with Godinho's horse recovering fastest, giving him a 2 minute lead going out on the final loop 6 over Raposo, who left a half-minute before Costa. Joaoa Picau Abreu and Yanada Yukio, are now nearly an hour an 15 minutes behind. The crowd is waiting for the three leading horses to come in for the finish as Abreu and Yukio come in off their 5th loop. A great cheer goes up for them, and they laugh, knowing it's all in fun, and Yukio says, "Thank you, thank you," to everybody. Yukio has been smiling throughout his ride, obviously enjoying it, helping hold his horse Kiria at the Vet Gates while Gaella and the grooms cool her out. Unfortunately though, Kiria is asked for a second trot out, and she is eliminated for rear lameness. After putting out a great effort for 134 km, she is retired. You feel for the team - the Japanese riders coming from so far away, the French horses coming from 2-days' drive away... but that's how it goes in endurance. Yukio is still ever-gracious and smiling, thanking people for their help.

We then spot the first 3 riders making their zigzags through the vineyards; the finish line crowds with people, some of us squeezing under a little shelter as another heavy rain squall passes over us - one more drenching for the horses and riders. The finish line was a small climb up a sandy hill; here came the horses galloping the last bit up the hill, Godinho raising both hands in victory as Olimpico da Amierira came 6 lengths ahead of Ana Margarida Costa on Eros An Trinskell, who was several lengths ahead of Joao Raposo on Quinza.

The crowd moved to the crewing area to watch the horses cool down, and it took them a good 20 minutes before they walked in the vet gate. Breaths were held as the horses trotted out - all good, making Pedro Godinho and Olimpico da Amieira the 2008 Portuguese Champions. Meanwhile, Joao Picau Abreau and Spirit had a re-examination trot-out, and they headed out on their final 26 km loop, alone and into the dark, with a full moon rising.

Abreau and Spirit came in just under the cutoff time and passed the final vet exam, resulting in 4 finishers in the 2008 Portuguese Championship ride. While there was little to no change in altitude, the footing over much of the course was technical, especially with the large amount of rain over the last week. There's always luck that plays a part, and with the already daunting task of completing a 160-km ride in the best of circumstances, for most today, it was just not to be.

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