Saturday June 23 2007
The Bab al Shams 120 km FEI Assisi endurance ride began at 6:30 AM under partially overcast skies. In fact, low misty clouds obscured Mt Subasio in the direction the riders were headed on the first loop. I skipped the start and stayed up in the village and waited for the horses to ride by in the Plaza del Commune. Police had blocked off streets, and ribbons had been hung on the old stone walls to guide the riders.
Around 7:10 AM I heard the clomping of shod hooves-on-pavement. I'd pictured the herd clattering on through the town at a brisk trot, and in fact the past few days I'd pictured the ancient town hundreds of years ago with horses and wagons making their way up and down the cobblestoned streets. What hadn't occurred to me was the speed at which it was done. The clomping of hooves on stone came, alright, echoing off the high stone walls of the narrow streets, but at a walk – the streets were slick, and many riders were off their mounts walking.
After they passed, I took time for a cappuchino (okay, two), and then walked down the hill to wait for the riders as they eventually returned through Assisi town and back into the valley. Most all of them came trotting down the hill on the paved road. It must have been like driving on ice – you can't hit the brakes. Any attempts at slowing down at all were met with skids.
The paved roads -much of the ride was paved roads - looked as if they'd take a toll on the horses – and they did at the vet checks because of lameness. The day was mercifully cooler (though still hot) than yesterday, with a breeze, and while there were also a number of metabolic vet-outs, it was certainly less than it would have been with yesterday's heat.
Most foreign riders brought their own horses to ride, and that included the Slovakians, Germans, Swedes, Danish and Norwegians. Gunn Carlson, crewing for her daughter Gunilla Carlson, said it took them FIVE DAYS to drive to Assisi. And her daughter withdrew her horse after the second loop. He'd passed the vet check fine, but it was just too hot for him, coming from a cooler climate. All that way for riding 65 kilometers... but Gunn, and others I talked to, were still happy to be here, enjoying the company and the beautiful setting of the ride around Assisi.
The horses that stayed on the front end most of the ride continued to look strong as the day wore on. Every loop started out with the riders having to pass the stables (and coming in also), and several times horses tried to duck into the stables, sometimes at a canter! One white horse I saw just would not go past the turn. He backed up, down a steep embankment, several times, until someone led him forward. He still wouldn't go on, knowing his stable was RIGHT THERE, until the rider got off ot lead him. When the rider got back on, the horse wouldn't go forward. The rider got off again and led him on foot. I looked up a bit later, and the horses was in a field. The rider got off to lead him again, till I could see them no more. I wondered if he had to lead the horses on foot the entire loop.
The first horse to cross the finish line around 4 PM was India, with Italian rider Patrizia Giacchero. And so, with the Formula One finish, the out vet gates closed at 5 PM. I was in a field of big sunflowers when, across the field at a full-out gallop, comes a very familiar-looking white horse. The human at the corner of the field was there to direct the riders – finish towards me, beginning of loop 5, the other way. This horse and rider stopped to confer with the human, then along they came past me, the little white horse that preferred his stables, at a flying gallop. “HEEYAH!” I thought, Oh good, the little white horse gets to finish and go to his stable now. A bit later I happened to look towards the finish line, and there's the little white horse (backing up) engulfed in the sunflower field. His rider was jumping off to lead him out of the field, back PAST me – the human had directed him the wrong way (or the rider gave the wrong information). The horse still had a final 11.8 kilometers to do, and in so doing, he'd have to pass by his stables one more time! I did finally catch them crossing the finish line, and the horse had the most disbelieving look on his face, “Oh, sure, this is the end again, yea RIGHT!” I think the horse was having a bad day.
The Italians had a good day, Patrizia Giacchero winning, and Italians sweeping the top 10 placings (and most of the rest), except for Spain in 5th place, and 3 young ladies taking the top 3 spots. The vet out percentage was quite high. There was just too much pavement, said many riders. One said after completing, “If this were my horse, I'd ice his feet – for 48 hours!”
Riders that did not get to go out for their 5th loop due to the Formula One cut-off time still had a final vet check, and either vetted out or passed and received a placing though not a completion. Peter Chantler from South Africa was very pleased his little horse carried him to a placing, finishing loop 4.
I asked one of the vets if he thought this Formula One finish was successful. He said it may have been this time, and it may work well in certain situations, especially in cases like this where the weather is extreme – e.g. Too hot, when there's really no point in a tired horse going out just to finish a last loop when he won't be competitive. But only time will tell. “Endurance is changing, and we have to be open to change and consider it.”
One horse owner, whose horse vetted out lame, said it wasn't an endurance race, “it was a show.” She wasn't up set, and was in fact pleased that her horse finished loop 5 – but vetted out lame at the finish – just pointed out that so much pavement is not good for a real endurance ride. Another vet said the same: “It's not an endurance race when the first loop is 13-14 km/hour.” I heard no one at all complain of the beautiful setting, or idea, of an endurance ride around Assisi, even riders that came from far away.
The evening's entertainment was a buffet, and after the awards ceremony – a big concert, which must have had attendance in the thousands. You could hear the show up on the hill in Assisi, and cars were still clogging the streets trying to get in at midnight. Quite the show for a sleepy town that the Pope just visited a week ago!