SUNDAY MARCH 29 2009 - DAY 3
Fase 1 - El Rocio - Aznalcazar - 32.60 km
Fase 2 - Aznalcazar - Ruinas Italicas (Sevilla) - 33.40 km
TOTAL: 66 km
Everybody has Just One Of Those Al Andalus days where things don't always go right during the multi-day ride. Mine was today.
Javier and Alberto about gave me the slip this morning, as they almost left the restaurant without me for the start. Apparently plans for my day's ride had changed. He said I'd be riding with Jose Manuel Soto, and when we got to the start, he pointed to the buggy we'd be in. Oh - a buggy - OK... I'd be a little cold, but at least I'd be out on the course and hopefully get to some good picture spots. Although, I never quite knew if they were kidding me or not, or if they were making things up on the fly. But that's all part of Al Andalus too, when you're part of the press... things are sort of rearranged at the last minute if something else comes up.
The sun was not yet up as the pigeons swarmed in the sky around the big white church in the square of El Rocio. Gabriel Gamiz asked me if I'd been inside the church. "Not yet - I didn't even go in last year!" (Said in my Spanglish). Gabriel gasped and grabbed me arm and ran me into the church. In fact, there were many Al Andalus people running to and into the church before the start of the ride, saying a quick prayer and crossing themselves at the foot of the Madonna of the Dew.
Jose Manuel gathered the horses and riders and crews together at the front of the church for one big photo - I couldn't even squeeze everybody in one frame. And then, just as the golden sun rose, off the riders went on the start of Day 3!
I went and stood by my jeep, and suddenly there was a bit of confusion - Jose was not driving this jeep after all, and it was full anyway. Javier's car was full with a TV crew. Other official's cars were gone or full. They scrambled around and said, "Here's a seat! You can go with Rafa!" I jumped in the little white truck with Rafa, and everybody took off in a mad dash after the cantering riders for the trail ahead... except our little white truck. We followed the last rider out of town. I expected us to motor on past once the road widened, but Rafa said, "We follow the last rider." And it sunk in that I was in the 'drag' car - who followed the last rider over the whole course - I'd see one horse butt for 60 kilometers! And seeing as this gal was trotting, and walking, oh dear. This was not good and it was going to be a loooooooooong day of no photos - how many photos would people enjoy of one horse butt?
We stopped at one spot to pull the trail ribbon off a tree branch after the rider passed it, and just as I was about to resign myself to my somewhat humorous Drag fate for the day, just then my savior stepped out of the field where he'd been taking pictures. "Kristian! Save me! Can you please just take me to the vet check!?" From there I'd find another car to at least get to the finish line.
Kristian Fenaux, Spanish photographer for Ecuestre magazine, not only took me to the vet check, but to some scenic spots on the way, and kept me with him the whole day, all the way to the finish. He was clever at planning just where we could go, timing it right to meet the horses, and knowing when to leave so we could get to the next point in time to catch the riders again.
We first went to the same river crossing as last year, where some of the 1,000,000 people on their pilgrimage to El Rocio on the Romeria pass through. Here they wash in the river to cleanse themselves for before arriving at El Rocio. We laughed because the river was quite dirty. I said "I'll keep my sins, it's too cold to wash!" as it was a chilly morning. Not to mention there was all kinds of trash around the Virgin shrine, sadly. She may be revered, but not every day of the year.
We caught all the riders coming across, then drove on to the vet check, where we stopped just to grab some sandwiches (these were usually prepared early in the morning by the hotel we'd stayed at the night before), and iced Aquarius drinks before driving on.
It was a fairly flat trail today through wheat fields and olive tree orchards; and Frenchman Equipos rider Jean Pierre Lerisset was clipping along on Massar at 16 km/h - just below the average of day 1, and just above the average of day 2 - narrowly leading Binomios rider Carlos Escavias on Yaman V. This pair always stood out because Yaman V was a beautiful little chestnut stallion, and Carlos was a very tall boy. I'd heard that Carlos had only learned to ride 6 months ago, and if that's true, he looked like a natural on a horse, and he and his stallion got along very well.
Kristian drove us on to the finish at the Ruinas Italicas where, under darkening skies and a breeze picking up, the finish line was being set up. Antonio Castano, Jose Manuel Soto's partner in this Al Andalus venture, waved Kristian and me to Soto's jeep; we jumped in, and Jose headed for the trail, aiming for the ruins. But as we started, suddenly the two leaders cantered past us, heading for the finish line!
But wait - the finish line wasn't quite up yet! Though the sponsor banners were up, the sponsor signs that defined the lanes were still laying in the grass, and the meta balloon was not up yet. The two riders, Jean Pierre Lerisset and the Iris Marion Janowski were so intent upon racing each other, they were naturally drawn along the dirt road, not the grass lane where the real finish was. As we turned to follow, the two galloped neck and neck down the road... until enough people had yelled at them and turned them around.
We were arriving at the head of the lane as Jean Pierre and Iris galloped back to the head of the lane. They turned the corner at a gallop - Jean Pierre's horse Massar had the inside, and Iris 's horse Eritrea started turning with him - then blew the turn. Massar galloped on to and over what would be the finish line, and Eritrea jumped the signs, once to the outside of the lane, then back over to the inside of the lane and then to the finish line. All that - and then her horse was lame at the finish trot out.
The tall young boy, Carlos Escavias, riding the little stallion Yaman V, was the first Binomios across the line, only 8 minutes behind the Equipos winner.
Since we'd missed that racing finish, Jose turned the buggy around and took us to the ruins, right by which the trail for the horses went - what a spectacular setting! This old city of Italica was founded by the Romans in 206 BC. Two emperors were born here, Adriano and Trajan. The horses trotted right by the old coliseum; the grounds of the old city are extensive, but only a small portion has been excavated.
After it had started out as a dreary day for pictures for me, it couldn't have turned out better. I parked myself by the ruins and caught the rest of the riders coming by on their way to the finish. Some of them didn't even see me hiding in the bushes with my lens because they were entranced by the view to their left.
Three other riders of the 43 starters were eliminated at the finish from lameness; one rider opted not to ride on Fase II. Despite finishing in 7th place today on Hermes, Eduardo Sanchez still held the Binomios lead overall by 22 minutes. The Equipos race was much closer: Inigo Del Solar and his 14-year-old niece Teresa Lozano led the team of Emma Rosell and Maria Capdevila by just 3 minutes over the 3 days.
It had turned cool and blustery; while the riders and crews ate dinner in the erected white tent, horses waited in their staked-out pens, all of them blanketed against the chill. After dinner, the horses were transported the half-hour drive to the stables at the racecourse of Dos Hermanas - the site of last year's ride start.
The hotel for everybody was a convenient 15 minutes away, although it still takes up much of your day if you are crews or riders (or press), after getting your horses settled, you drive to the hotel, shower, get back in your car and drive to the ride meeting at the racecourse (where you at least find out the most important thing: controlled start time from the stables at 10:30 AM), then either stay to imbibe in the drinks and hors d'ouevres (especially the exquisite jamon made by the company of Maximilliano Portes, one of the Equipos riders), or drive around to the stables and check up on and feed your horses one more time before driving to the hotel for sleep.