Friday, April 11, 2008

III Raid Kaliber Tierras de Al-Andalus: Prologue

Friday March 28 2008

The Prologue takes place in Dos Hermanas outside of Seville, at the Gran Hipódromo de Andalucía. Dos Hermanas, founded in 1248 by King Ferdinand III is so named "Two Sisters" after the sisters of his lieutenant, Gonzalo Nazareno. This is why you might hear Dos Hermanas natives referred to as nazareños or nazareñas.

At our hotel, Steph and I met up with Paul Jeffrey and Madonna Harris of New Zealand. I met Paul and Madonna and Paco Maeso at last year's Horse of the Year endurance ride in New Zealand - Paul and Madonna's company Fisiocrem is a sponsor of and we went to cover the HOY endurance ride that Paul and Paco were participating in; Paco of Spain graciously invited Steph to participate in the Al-Andalus ride here, and I very fortunately got to tag along (again) as photographer. Paul and Madonna are here to closely watch and study this ride, as they plan to put on an Al-Andalus sister ride in New Zealand (!), possibly by this year's end.

We piled in a taxi together to the Hipódromo. The backside stables of the grand old racecourse were busy with horse vans coming and going, people and horses and gear moving into the permanent box stalls, vans and trailers and assistance vehicles getting repacked, saddles and bridles and boots being readied for the morning, horses warming up, camera crews roaming, horns honking, horses neighing, shod hooves clattering on pavement, shouted human greetings, and José Manuel Soto cruising around on his motorbike, keeping an eye on the progress and welcoming returning and new riders to the event.

I asked José about this enormous event he conjured up, namely - Why? "To show off my beautiful countryside by horseback," he said, to show what wonderful hosts the Andalucians are, to provide a fun, challenging adventure for endurance riders. But thinking of the incredible logistics of moving a huge circus of people and horses around the state for 8 days, I asked Why 8 days? Why not start off with an easier 4 or 5? "Because even 8 days is not enough to see Andalucía. Eight days will give you only a taste of my country." José knows Al-Andalus is no cushy vacation, it is hard work: people have to take off 2-3 weeks of work, they still have their families to take care of - either here at the ride or at home, and this adventure will permit little rest - you will be on the go from early in the mornings to late at nights... but it is worth it. "You will enjoy the country, the new friends, the food, the drink, the horses." José does ride Arabians, but for pleasure. Why not endurance? "I am not a good jockey!" Will you sing for everybody? I asked - I am very much looking forward to hearing not only some indigenous flamenco music, but José Soto's voice also. He smiled with a sparkle in his eye as he said, "Maybe." A treat to look forward to.

Steph was waiting on Paco to arrive - Paco had been busy driving all over Spain the last day or two, taking Paul and Madonna to pick up a caravan that they will travel in during the ride, picking up his new Remolquest Tamame 2-horse trailer, and shuttling his white stallion Ibor, who he will ride, and his friend Fernando Uriartes' mare Arenal, who Steph will ride. The two can't travel together in his 2-horse trailer, so that made for a lot of extra work throughout the ride, especially on days when they both did not ride! When Paco finally arrived on his last trip to the track with the mare, he was quite worn out, and still had a busy day of settling in the horses, registration, vetting in, and taking his horse for a ride with Steph and her mare; but he still had time to ask about the Raven, his good-luck charm. Did I bring the Raven along? Of course I did! Paco would get to see him tomorrow.

Meanwhile, on the frontside of the racetrack, there is a crush of people at the Organization desks - the Al-Andalus staff dealing with innumerable members of the press, riders and crew; computers are working overtime, riders are weighing in; there are bags getting filled with (depending on which category - or in Steph's case, categories - you fall into) of books, schedules, instructions, color-coded vests, passes, ride clothing (polo shirt, jacket, vest, cap), assistance car and van placards, coupons for petrol, hay, straw. Here we very briefly met a few of the beating hearts of the Organization: Inés de Albert, Gabriel and Rosa, all working madly doing ten things at once with twenty different people at once in at least Spanish and English, with the same smiles on their faces that would still be there 10 days later.

Vet inspections began at 11 AM in the paddock area, and the Prologue ride of 5 laps around the 2000m racecourse was to begin at 4:30. There were signs of a big party starting: the Tierras de al-Andalus truck was unloading on the frontside - it is a travelling stage from which the inflatable finish line, sponsor flags and banners are unloaded and set up each day (and taken down), and from which, when opened up, the awards will be presented each night on the inside of a truck as a stage; booths with free drinks from sponsors Coca-cola and Kaliber were setting up, and a ride several times around the track for the local endurance riding club was underway - they will participate in tomorrow's 61-km stage to El Rocío. The camera/helicopter guys from last year were testing their equipment (this is a little remote controlled helicopter, about 2' by 1' by 1' that carries a remote controlled camera - 1 man controls the helicopter and the other mans the camera); the vet staff was busy inspecting horses; the TV camera crew was popping up everywhere; a hot-air balloon was inflating right by the finish line of the inner track where the local ride/race was taking place, spooking some of the horses all the way to the outer rail when it belched fire.

It seemed rather overwhelming to Steph, as she checked in as press, then as a rider, to be attempting to do both - ride every other day as part of her team, and be press every other day. But once she met her team partner, José León Cuevas, she got caught up in the excitement. José and his mare Bulería were the winners of the first Al-Andalus ride (Bulería is, quite appropriately, actually owned by José Manuel Soto). José León felt the tremendous pressure as the returning binomial champion last year; this year he decided to enjoy the ride as a holiday, and to compete in the Equipos (teams) competition - which is why he did not mind Steph as his partner, since she is riding a less seasoned mare who would be going slower. Steph was hoping to ride on the beach and in the mountains - and these just happened to be the days on which she would indeed be riding - galloping over the beaches and mountains of Andalucia, Spain - what a dream!

Since Steph's mare didn't arrive till 4 PM, she and Paco skipped the ride around the racecourse, and instead vetted in and took their two horses out after the rest of the horses were done. I had expected mass mayhem and bedlam from some 45 horses starting a gallop around the racetrack together - I come from the racetrack, so I know how horses are at a starting gate; and I come from endurance, so I know how Arabian horses are at the start of an endurance ride! - but it was a quite calm, orderly start as the horses cantered and trotted under the inflated starting balloon, proud, bright-eyed Arabians, Anglo Arabs, at least one extraordinarily handsome Spanish warmblood, an appaloosa (returning from a third-place teams finish last year) and a few paints, stretching their legs on the lush turf.

There were a few horses happily racing each other, with their riders pulling ineffectually on the reins for a while; one of the horses worked himself into quite a lather. Bulería was one of the mighty ones, pulling hard on the reins, shaking her head with eagerness, ready to get on with her third ride across Andalucía.

Back at the stables, Paco's helpers/drivers/friends/crew - Paul and Madonna, Tejano, and Fernando - were busy about the business of packing for tomorrow. The ride would start at some stables at 9 AM in another town 30 minutes away; horses were to leave the track here in their vans at 7:30 AM. It looked like the pack job for the beginning of a months-long boy-scout road trip - and we dubbed the whole thing Paco's Locuro team - "everything is chaos! Loco!"

The press meeting didn't seem to actually happen on the frontside at 12:30 PM, or 2 PM, or at all, and the very brief technical meeting was all in Spanish - Kristian Fenaux (Spanish photographer) interpreted for us, though it didn't have anything to do with Steph and me. At 8 PM (or thereabouts) the boisterous rider meeting began. It was all in Spanish - and Steph and I couldn't understand a word. Even if it had been in English, and the microphone clearer, we would have probably missed it all anyway, because the meeting was very upbeat and lively, indicating the mood of the adventurers ready to embark on their excursion across Andalucía. We were unclear on how we and our luggage would get to the ride start in the morning, or how we would get around the course, or how we and our luggage would get to the next hotel next evening... but that was all part of the adventure, right? Here in Andalucía, you just go with the flow, and things will probably work out, one way or the other. And if they don't... well, not to worry.

And they did work out this evening; after grabbing some quick tapas and beer provided for all, Inés arranged our rides in the morning, and rides for our luggage, and then took us to our hotel. It was the first of what would become a regular late night to bed - around midnight - and an early wake up call at 5:30 AM, for the official start of the 2008 Raid Kaliber Tierras de Al-Andalus.

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