Friday, April 24, 2009

2009 Al Andalus: Day 2 - Sanlucar de Barrameda to El Rocio

Saturday March 28 2009

Fase 1 - Sanlucar de Barrameda - Matalascanas - 34.36 km
Fase 2 - Matalascana - El Rocio - 30.67 km
TOTAL: 65.03 km

Our hotel was terrific... except even up on the 10th floor, with earplugs in, I could hear some serious partying going on, all night, out on the streets. Did I say the Andalucians knew how to party?

I sent my suitcase ahead with Maaite to El Rocio, and I was bundled into the car of ride officials Guillermo and Eugenia, and we headed to the beach, where the horses would gather to catch the ferry across the Guadalquivir for the official start of Day 2's ride. The streets were wet, and it was heavily overcast... and in a bit of questionable planning, I'd left my raincoat in my suitcase.

The officials had planned for all the riders to gather at 8:30 AM at the ferry for the ride across the river, and that the start would be at 9:00 AM on the other side. It's good to make plans, and it's often hard to imagine, or think ahead of all the potential problems that can arise on a big multi-day ride with so many facets of organization required.

For example, last year, the horses had done this day in reverse: starting in El Rocio, and finishing on the beach on the other side of the river. They'd been quite tired after a long 60 km day in the sand, and none of the horses had any real trouble walking up the ramp onto the ferry for the crossing, because they really didn't care much about anything but eating and resting.

Well. These horses had been in stables overnight, and had only warmed up on the 3 km walk down the beach to the ferry. For some of the horses in Equipos, this was their first day of competition. In other words, horses were not tired enough to care what they were walking up and onto.

Most of them loaded easily on the ferry for the first trip across - and those that didn't want to load waited for the ferry to cross and dump its load of a few of the official's cars, and a load of about 20 horses, and then come back. The entire process took about 20 minutes. It only took 20 minutes when the horses loaded smoothly, that is. Two horses would not step on the loading ramp. Would. Not.

All the others but these two loaded on; I saw one of the horses get a tranquilizer and eventually get loaded; a few bicyclists went on the ferry; and the one horse Off Spring just flat refused. It was a lovely warmblood of Maximilliano Portes. Everything was tried. One person tried to pull him; two people tried with one pulling and one pushing; a group of people tried shooing him on; some people whapping him on the butt; he refused to put a foot on the ramp.

Finally one rider, David Gacinos, handed his horse off to someone else, and he took the reins of Off Spring, and backed everyone off and told them all to quiet down. He tried leading the horse, then he tried just letting the horse relax a bit standing near the ramp. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking, the officials started looking at their watches, it was lightly raining, all the other horses were standing somewhat quietly on the ferry and starting to shiver in the cool air. David then mounted Off Spring and tried riding him up the ramp, still keeping everyone back. Boy, he had more nerve than I did.

The horse was calmer, but he still refused to step on the ramp. After a few minutes of that, David got back off, let the horse stand a bit, then tried leading him again. Horse refused. David picked up a forefoot, and tried to set it on the ramp. The horse was onto him. He didn't back up, but he wouldn't put his foot down. More people quietly moved up to help. David finally got the one foot set down on the ramp. Another man on the other side picked up Off Spring's other front foot up and eventually set it down on the ramp.

The horse backed up. They tried it again, slowly. Ines got in front of the horse with some carrots. Some more men moved in. One slow step at a time, they moved his forefeet onto the ramp. The horse reached for a carrot from Ines. He ate it. David had stepped to the horse's rear. He picked up a hind foot, moved it forward and set it down. The man on the other side moved that foot forward while David pulled forward on the horse's tail. Ines gave the horse another carrot, and he took it and ate it. "Ines!" I called. "Rub his head!" She rubbed his head, he lowered it, he licked his lips, and let his front feet be picked up and slowly put down further up the ramp. Finally, all four feet were on the ramp, and when the horse realized it, heck, he just walked right up there. It had taken about 30 minutes to load the one horse, and all the horses and people on the ferry who'd been standing there the whole time were shivering in the light rain. The horses on the other beach had been warming up the whole time.

As one of the German girls said, "It's hard to practice this - loading a horse onto a ferry - just anywhere! This ride is good for experiences - the horse learns, sees many new things and new experiences."

The rest of us crammed in the end of the ferry and it took us across. Everybody piled out, and as soon as everyone was mounted, the field was sent away, 34 km up the beach to Matalascanas. I was worried some of the horses that had stood so long shivering on the ferry might tie up, but I found out later that nobody had.

The rain had stopped, but the heavy gray clouds remained, shading the Atlantic Ocean a reflecting somber gray as the horses cantered along the sand that was made firm by earlier rain. Guillermo drove on the firmer sand, not in the water chasing seagulls, and not too fast, and I attempted to talk with them in my version of Spanish. We passed two big water trucks that had buckets and sponges waiting for riders to come by, and we passed several of the National Park buses that would be transporting the crews to the water stops and vet check.

As we reached the first condos and hotels on the beach of Matalascanas, we got just a hint of blue skies up there somewhere. Eugenia did a happy dance on the beach as Guillermo searched for a way to drive up off the beach into the town. He was successful in not getting stuck!

Last year's vet check was right on the beach, but this year it was moved to a small stable 2 km away. After their long stretch along the beach, the riders climbed up a bluff from the beach and headed along paved roads to the vet check. It was quite chaotic there, when the bulk of the day's 43 riders were there all together for their 30 minute hold, or coming in from or going back out onto the trail through a rather narrow gate, all at the same time.

Once most of the horses were on their way, we drove on to El Rocio, counting horses trotting along the side of the highway as we passed them. Last year's trail cut through Donana National Park - another 30 km of sand, some heavy at times; this year's trail instead went 30 km straight along the highway directly to El Rocio. And there was plenty of sand here - either you took your chances on the narrow, paved shoulder of the highway, with cars whizzing past by inches (few cars slow down for horses here), or, you took your horse through the sand off the highway.

We arrived at the finish in El Rocio where the meta (finish) line balloon was set up in front of the imposing white Santuario of Nuestra Senora de el Rocio.

Normally a sleepy little town of sand streets on the edge of Donana National Park, bordered by a swampy lake that's frequented by a herd of wild horses, it becomes the site of the Romeria del Rocio on the weekend before Pentecost Monday - the largest Pilgrimage in Spain. A million people crowd into the small town to visit the statue of the Madonna of the Dew, a tradition that began in the 15th century. They come by car, on foot, in oxcart and on horseback, to party and dance and perhaps partake of the magical powers of the Madonna.

We came to watch the finish of Day 2 of Al Andalus. It was a racing finish between the first 3 riders. First across the finish line by two lengths was the Spaniard Santiago Perez on Marlboro Yac, followed by Portuguese Joaquim Cruz, who was a few lengths in front of Italian Stefano Chidichimo.

If there was anyone who epitomized the heart, the pure enjoyment, and the appreciation of Al Andalus, it was Stefano. Wherever he went, there was a cloud of la dolce vita that preceded him and a wave of enthusiastic support that followed him. Once upon a time a lawyer, now doing Horse Management - tourism, events, training - he just BEAMS when he speaks of why he came to ride in Al Andalus for the first time. He looks to the sky and squints, in deep concentration, "It was a dream." He pounds his heart, where the deep feelings originate. He had read about Al Andalus and was friends with Jose Manuel Soto, and he found friends in Spain with horses to ride, so here he is. "I LOVE endurance around the world - the people, the riding." He got a huge cheer when he received his third place award on the stage in the town square.

Coming in 9th, and first Binomios, was, once again, Eduardo Sanchez and Hermes, just a few lengths ahead of 2nd place Binomios Claudia Lorenzo on Camila Av. Then it was an all-out horse race between the next Binomios riders: Ottto Velez and his son Andres Velez. They were clearly having a good time, as father just outlasted son under the finish balloon.

This is Andres' first ride in Al Andalus, but Otto's 4th. Otto's riding his homebred Arabian gelding Pal Partenon, with whom he finished 6th in Binomios last year.

The sun finally emerged from behind the clouds to shine on the town that was now busy with Al Andalus horses coming in, getting cooled down and doing their final trot outs, Al Andalus horses having their end-of-the-day roll in the sand, tourists, horse rides for rent, and a few bitted up Andalusians prancing through the sandy square.

Head veterinarian Francisco Castejon was happy with the performance of today's horses: of the 42 that started, there were only 2 eliminations at the first vet gate, 1 from lameness, and one rider option, and there were no metabolic problems.

The night's stay was at the same place as last year, Camping La Aldea, with convenient, comfortable bungalows right next to stables for the horses. A HUGE meal was provided for riders and crews in the restaurant; there were over 150 people, partaking of at least 5 courses of food, and beer, wine, and soft drinks. More than a dozen waiters efficiently zipped in and out, keeping fresh servings of food and drinks in front of everybody. There was so much food, I didn't know where to put it all, but it kept going down so i kept eating what they gave me. It was uproariously loud, people having a grand time visiting, especially the table of young riders, who were enjoying themselves as much as the adults, with talk and laughter and rearranging of positions for rounds of photos.

While the ride and the big meal of the day were finished, the work didn't stop. While vet inspections were held for tomorrow's Equipos horses who had not been ridden today, other riders and crews were busy with their horses: brushing, picking feet, hosing legs, walking. Maaite the physical therapist was busy working on 3 horses.

The "8:30" ride meeting was in the restaurant in the typically too-small room with too few chairs for too many people, and there was the usual much talking and visiting and little listening! Which is all part of the Al Andalus fun.

The WORST news to come out of the meeting was: Set your clocks back tonight for daylight savings time! The exact same thing happened last year when we stayed in El Rocio - we lost a precious hour of sleep. Another part of the Al Andalus fun!

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