Thursday September 30 2010
One of the great things about a World Endurance Championship is that there are so many people you will get to see and visit with once again from around the world.
One of the bad things about a World Endurance Championship is that there are so many people you want to see and visit with once again from around the world that you simply don't have the time to see them all.
A good little crowd had gathered around the vetting ring in an outdoor arena Saturday morning, as, one by one, the countries arrived in alphabetical order to vet in their horses. A good time to look at some handsome horseflesh, and greet long lost friends. Even Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum - the Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai and endurance racing competitor - was waiting around the vetting ring before and after his two horses passed inspection, chatting with people, watching horses, and without his usual retinue. He looked like just another endurance rider with a stable pass around his neck, hanging out with other endurance riders and grooms with stable passes around their necks
All the horses I saw were well behaved and calm, and plenty of people were enjoying themselves with smiles on their faces. The German girls looked spiffy in their black tights with yellow stars on them; the Great Britain men looked dapper in suits and ties as did the ladies in their waistcoats.
The lone rider representing India was Mustafa Tehrani, who would be riding Pam Weidel's horse AF Big Bucks. When the horse passed the vet inspection, that made Mustafa the first Indian rider to get to the World Endurance Championship. AF Big Bucks was a former racehorse who was unhappy at his job, and one that Pam had her eye on for two years before she could get him. The 11-year-old gelding has over 1000 AERC miles to his name, but only one 100-miler, the FITS Pioneer in March of this year. He and Mustafa finished 5th in 8:12.01, and here they were, qualified for the World Endurance Championship.
Alisija Zabavska-Granger, representing Lithuania, would be riding Ed Kidd's horse Merlin. Merlin's got over 3000 AERC miles in 10 seasons of competition, and has completed 7 100-milers. Alisija finished 9th on him in March in the 100-mile FITS Pioneer, and second on him in the 50-mile Endure for the Cure in July. Ed was quite enjoying himself, and Merlin sauntered around unconcerned by anything. "He's done all this before," Ed said, clearly smitten by his horse.
The American team's horses all looked good, and when they all passed the vet in, a cheer went up around the ring. Deborah Reich and her horse DJB Juniper had bumped up to the team when Ellyn Rapp's SA Belshazzar came up lame. Ellyn and her extra horse Berjo Smokey were now the US Team's alternates. It had to be a disappointment after making it this far - but Ellyn and her twin sister Eryn looked like they were enjoying the experience.
Kiwi Madonna Harris is the chef d'equipe of the New Zealand team of three who came to ride. Madonna was fresh off participating in the 1000-km Mongol Derby, where she finished 3rd (and which I never had time to ask her about).
Kiwi Trevor Copland came with American Charisse Glenn to crew for the Japan team of 5 riders - the first Japanese team to participate in the World Endurance Championship. Ayame Sasaki was possibly the youngest rider in this year's WEC. At 18 years of age, she would be riding Fausto BL - a half brother (through the sire LV Cartell) to Joyce Sousa's iron horse LV Integrity, the 6400+ mile horse with 26 of 29 100-mile finishes, and 2 Tevis buckles. Four of the five Japan horses are owned by Mr Seiichi Hasumi, the man who has finished Tevis 7 times (in a row!!), and the man who is responsible for starting endurance riding in Japan. Mr Hasumi had bad luck and didn't qualify himself for riding in the WEC, but he is playing the roll of chef d'equipe for the team. It should be mentioned that the Japan Equestrian Federation contributed nothing to the endurance team; Mr Hasumi and the team members and a printing company Toppan worked to get the Japan team to Kentucky.
Carmen Romer was the lone entry from the Netherlands, riding Tuff Enuff FA owned by JD Fountain. He got to know Carmen through Valerie Kanavy - Carmen rode Valerie's King Ali Gold (anybody heard of him?) to a third place and BC in the 50-mile Gallop on the Greenway in January, and she won the 100-mile Canadian Championships and got BC on Valerie's Destiny Gold in July. Carmen's just 25, but, "She's the best rider!" JD said of her. Carmen has competed in endurance all around the world, and was the Dutch Champion in 1996 and 1997. She and Tuff Enuff FA finished second in the 100-mile Goethe Challenge in December of 2009 to qualify for the World Endurance Championship. Carmen's enthusiastic father Lei – crew extraordinaire and biggest fan of his daughter - would be crewing for her.
Spanish Maria Alvarez Ponton and her horse Nobby - reigning World Endurance Champions - vetted in, and then Maria was there for the UAE as they vetted in - she and her husband Jaume Punti train horses for the Shaikh Mohammed in Spain, England and Dubai. Afterwards she got on one of Shaikh Mohammed's horses and took him for a warm up ride on the course, and later got on Nobby with the Spanish team, and took him for a spin. It's all in a hard day's work for a World and European Champion, who, it is worth noting, gave birth to a daughter 7 weeks previously!
A number of horses were out on the training course in the afternoon, getting their last works in before tomorrow's race. Some teams went out as a group: Bahrain, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Brazil, Japan, France; others went out individually.
Penny Toft was one of the three riders representing Australia. She'd be riding Don, a 14-year-old "station-bred" - half Arabian, half...something, could be Cob, draft, standardbred. One might say he has a coarse head, but he had a nice shine to his fit endurance body.
This is what Penny said of Don, when I visited the Tofts and rode with them in Australia in 2007: "He sets his head, and he goes, crazy fast; he’s got one pace, flat out. When you come to an intersection, he’ll throw on the brakes and buck and kick up. You get on him and he pisses off, no standing around and waiting. He whizzes around corners on 2 legs; he puts his head down like a vacuum cleaner to go under trees and he doesn’t slow down. You have to duck fast! You can’t make him drink if he doesn’t want to, but when he does want to, he drinks like a camel."
He's gotten a bit more controllable over the years with more experience, but he can still be a challenge to ride. Before Penny took Don out for his final warm up ride on the course, Peter Toft took him to the arena to lunge him first. We watched Don leap and bolt and gallop and play around Peter in circles. "When he's on the track, he's totally focused," Penny said, "but out here is where he shows off his personality. I hope I stay on him today... " Penny's always had a soft spot for this horse, and I could see that Peter Toft does too, the way he let Don do what he wanted, and didn't get after him.
Don isn't really a people horse - he likes to do his job, but don't be doing any hugging on him or petting his head. "Don't touch his face, and don't touch this spot on his withers when you're crewing him," said American Ann Hall, who would help crew along with the Tofts' daughter Alexandra, "or you'll end up in one of those water buckets!"
Alexandra and Penny came to ride the WEC pre-ride last year, and both withdrew their horses after the first loop because of the dangerous footing on the course, and because Alexandra was suffering from hypothermia.
The weather was good - in the high low 80's, with tomorrow looking to be even cooler. A front moved through the night before and dropped some rain on the course, which could only help with the footing on course.
Opening ceremonies in the evening were an extravaganza of music: Wynonna Judd, orchestra, choirs, opera singers; horses: champion Saddlebreds under saddle and pulling carriages (including one driven by William Shatner), Standardbreds racing, Thoroughbreds racing (including one carrying former jockey Chris McCarron); trick riders, Stacy Westfall, ballet dancers, ballet dancers and a dancing horse and rider, and of course the parade of participating nations. Jan Worthington deservedly got to walk in the front row of the Americans (all disciplines walked together), waving little American flags.
Unfortunately, the incredible opera singers were probably lost on most of this crowd, and the 3-hour Opening Ceremonies were about an hour too long, as by the end, half the stadium was empty. Competitors and grooms and crews were already tucked in bed for their short sleep before tomorrow's 7:30 AM start of the World Endurance Championship.