Saturday, September 8, 2007

Portugal - European Endurance Championship

Saturday September 8 2007

One of the highlights of shooting a European Endurance Championship, after more or less 6 months on the road in Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, and Europe, is seeing again people I've met and gotten to know. That's one reason that many people cite about liking endurance.

Without reins today were two Australians I'd stayed with, Meg Wade; Peter Toft (he met the Raven II today, after never having met The Raven I); Compiegne ride organizer extraordinaire Nicolas Wahlen, South African Peter Chantler (he rode in Assissi, Italy and he was here crewing for friends); the Frenchman Stephane Chazel, whose place I'd visited, and his assistant Gaella; congenial German photographer Heidi Bernsdorf, who'd taken me under her wings and given me a ride all over the course at Kreuth, Germany.

Riding today, and still having time to say hi, were Essa Mohammed from Qatar (met him in Malaysia, then San Galmier, France), my good friends from the Dutch team (I stayed with several of them), and of course the American riders (most of who I hadn't known before meeting them here).

It was a foggy morning, turning to typical hazy, sunny, humid, and hot, testing conditions for the horses. It was an intense hurricane of activity when the horses arrived off the loops for crewing, and serious, focused, fast riding on the trail, which was considered a tough one for its terrain and hazards, and the heat.

A few ride incidents:

The first 5 UAE riders coming in off Loop 1 missed the obviously marked turn in. Was it my camera lens that distracted them, or 2 roaming dogs on the trail? Nobody seemed too concerned about this getting off trail, although it was just 200 yards from the finish line. But then, maybe you really don't tell Princes to go back out and catch that last part of the trail.

Dutch friend Jeanne's horse, Ricki's Macho Man, has been known to dump her galloping toward the finish line. He dumped her coming in off the first loop. I saw a rolling ball of dust, a riderless horse, then a little gal hopping back up and onto her horse and continuing on in.

One mare being ridden fast came off of one of the loops clearly agitated. In the crewing area, her crew would stop to put water on her, and when they started her moving again, she'd rear in the air. She did this again and again before they finally figured out something was obviously bothering her. She was eliminated at this gate on metabolics.

Eliminations: You have people and teams you cheer for, but the finish percentage of these rides is usually 40 to 50%, so odds are against them. One by one, the 4 Russian riders were eliminated. I was rooting for them, having come from such a long way, some 6500 kilometers, to get here. You can't help but think of their long journey back. Three of my Dutch friends were pulled, leaving two still going; none of the Americans completed.

Loops 2, 3, 4, and 5 began and ended at Barroca D'Alva. The start and finish of the ride was at Companhia das Lezírias, some 20 km away by road. After loop 5, Steph and Pamela, (another photojournalist), and I, had to get back to the finish. So did 3000 other people. We were caught in a massive traffic jam, where our long line of cars was literally parked on the highway. At first we heard distant sirens and figured it was a very inopportune wreck, and then I saw some endurance horses crossing the highway. But after the horses crossed, our cars never moved, and the sirens kept coming. We were sure it must also be a wreck, and we were resigned to the fact that we were going to miss the winners crossing the finish line at Companhia das Lezírias.

Then the police, with their blazing lights and wailing sirens passed, followed not by ambulances, but by... a line of black Mercedes cars and SUVs! “It's the Shaikh escort!” Steph said, as we watched them whiz past us poor souls stranded on the parking lot of the highway. “If Cidinha were driving, she'd follow them!” Steph mused. It only took her 1 ½ seconds to say, “I'm going to follow them!” as she deftly swung out of our parked string, and slipped neatly between a couple of black Mercedes in our little putt putt rent-a-car, cleverly disguised with our emergency flashers on.

In so doing, we passed the parked line of cars (both directions), whizzing down the narrow highway with our personal police escort at 120 km/hr. We made it to Companhia das Lezírias with enough time to run down to the finish line and stake our spots.

It wasn't a very close finish like we'd all anticipated, though there were a few mild races into the finish. Two UAE riders finished 1-2, but one was eliminated at the vet check. France came in next – making him, Jean Phillippe Frances, the European Champion – followed by 2 from Spain. The French (again) won the Teams competition – Vive Le France! The French are, simply and consistently, the ones at the top of the world endurance game.

One race-in pitted Spain's Eloina Fernandez Vega against the UAE's Prince Ahmed. Vega was riding Rayito, a horse that stood out at the vet-in on Friday, and all during today's ride - not because he was a big beautiful Anglo-Arab type that always grabs my eye, or something like an eye-turning dark dappled bay coat. No, this was a little, round, roan horse that resembled a miniature quarter horse. He was pitted against the Shaikh's big, tall, handsome, rangy chestnut Jazyk – the type that does catch my eye.

Turning the corner for home, Vega and Prince Ahmed kicked into a sprint – but the race was over as soon as it started. The Prince's horse stumbled right away and he fell out of the race-in... but I think Shaikh Ahmed's horse faked a stumble on purpose so he wouldn't have to race this little Rayito, because he knew there was going to be no catching him.

When they both took off, Rayito immediately left Jazyk in the dust. Rayito KNEW that Jazyk stumbled, and he was already far ahead, but even so, he grabbed the bit and sprinted to the finish, Eloina along for the wild ride whether she wanted it or not. She hollered Whoa, she pulled on the reins and sat far back in the saddle with her legs forward as brakes, but Rayito didn't slow down till he'd crossed the finish line and scattered the spectators! And that's because Rayito knows he's a champion: 2005 in the Spanish championships he won the bronze, 2006 he won the silver, and this year he was the Spanish gold medal champion. I heard a rumor he was not on the Spanish team because he didn't look the part of a champion. He certainly doesn't have royal breeding: his father is an Arabian, but his mother was half Percheron (hence his shape) and half Anglo Arab, and a 'lowly' plow horse. Rayito is doing his parents proud, as Spanish champion, and by finishing 15th in the Open and in the European division. Go son-of-a-plow-horse!

The last finishers, in the dark, were my Dutch friends, sisters Marjolein and Anita, hooray!

At the Closing Ceremonies next morning, Dutch coach Mechteld had a few things to say about her Dutch riders. She's changing her coaching strategy. No more of this posh treatment in polo clubs, with swimming pools and hot tubs. No more soft beds and feather pillows. From now on, it was tents and hard ground until the team got the gold! Then maybe they'd get a mattress to sleep on. After 3 golds in a row, they might get real beds. Time to toughen things up! (Really, she was quite pleased with the two finishers.)

And so ended my first venture to a European Endurance Championship, my first venture to Portugal, my first visit to Portugal. A good end to a long journey around a corner of the endurance world.

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