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29 September, 2010

Big Money Bolsters Equestrian Endurance Race

By KATIE THOMAS

The 100-mile endurance race is easily the most romantic of the eight horse disciplines on display here at the World Equestrian Games, evoking Bedouin desert races or the nostalgia of the Pony Express.
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A Horse Marathon Takes On the Pace of Nascar
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Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

Competitors in the endurance race at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky. More Photos »

Sunday’s race, won by María Mercedes Alvarez Pontón of Spain, took 100 horses and their riders across a Kentucky landscape of tobacco and thoroughbred farms as competitors tested the stamina and grit of their prized Arabian horses.

Much is made of the long ride, but seasoned competitors know the race is often won or lost when horse and rider are not on the course. The endurance competition is as much a Nascar race as it is a horse marathon: a winning strategy often plays out in the rest period between the race’s six loops, when riders cool and relax their horses so they can pass a range of medical tests and advance to the next stage as quickly as possible.

Teams left little to chance during Sunday’s race, which is on a par with the Olympics among endurance riders. As soon as riders pulled their horses into a cooldown area, grooms worked in tightly choreographed motions, yanking saddles and dousing the animals with buckets of ice water. Horses cannot move to the mandatory veterinarian check until their heart rate drops below 64 beats a minute.

“The more quickly he passes through, the faster he will leave,” said Jean-Louis Leclerc, the chef d’equipe, or team leader, for the French team. If a horse does not cool down quickly enough, “you can lose four or five minutes and then you have to make up the time later.”

Maintaining such expert crews takes deep pockets, and for several top competitors, that is not a problem. The modern-day sport of endurance riding began in the 1950s in California, but an influx of money from Arab royalty in the last decade has transformed it into a pastime of kings and sheiks. The royal families of Qatar, Bahrain and Dubai maintain vast stables of horses that have been bred and conditioned for the epic rides as well as high-performance centers devoted to the sport.

Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, took second place for the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, followed in third by his son, Sheik Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum.

Another son of Sheik Mohammed’s, Sheik Majid bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, finished in sixth place. The son of the king of Bahrain also competed, finishing in 13th place.

In a news conference Saturday, Sheik Mohammed said Arabs had a powerful cultural connection to the sport. In the desert, owning a well-conditioned horse can be a matter of life or death.

“Horses can save you,” he said. “With the Arabs, they love the horse, and the horse is in their blood.”

The royals do not pack lightly. In what has become a tradition in international endurance races, Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain erected semipermanent “chalets” near the venue at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. The tents were outfitted with crystal chandeliers, white tablecloths and oriental rugs and featured catered buffets throughout the day.

The influence of Arab royal money has also been felt on the course. After the French team won gold at the last World Equestrian Games in 2006, many of the team’s best horses were purchased by Arab buyers. Leclerc said the team made the best of it. “We have other horses in France,” he said. The French won silver in the team competition, behind the United Arab Emirates.

Still, many endurance enthusiasts seem to appreciate the presence of the Arab teams, which helps drive global interest in the sport — and can help pay their bills. Alvarez Pontón, whose husband, Jaume Punti-Dachs , is a trainer for Sheik Mohammed, thanked the sheik in remarks after her win.

“I think he deserves to be the world champion,” she said. “He is the person who has done more for this sport in the world. This sport is what it is now because of him.”

But the 34-year-old Alvarez Pontón acknowledged she was not willing to trade medals with him — not after having taken first place seven weeks after giving birth to a daughter. “Now, I cannot change,” she said with a laugh.

Alvarez Pontón finished the race in 7 hours 35 minutes 44 seconds, which was 55 seconds ahead of Sheik Mohammed.

But financial backing was only half the battle Sunday. The cooldown area, particularly during the early legs, became a center of activity as crews rushed to prepare their horses, sometimes pushing others out of their way. The commotion can spook a horse and drive its heart rate up, so teams will often desensitize the animals to loud noises or quick movements ahead of time.
Enlarge This Image
Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

A winning strategy often plays out in the rest period between the six loops of the competition. More Photos »
Multimedia
Slide Show
A Horse Marathon Takes On the Pace of Nascar

The United States placed its horses in the middle of a circle of cars and honked the horns to get them accustomed to the atmosphere.

“You need a horse with a really good mind, that’s not going to get excited,” said Becky Hart, the chef d’equipe for the American team and a three-time world champion.

Her team did not fare well Sunday. All but one of the five Americans were eliminated during veterinarian checks, with Heather Reynolds finishing fourth, only to be eliminated for a lame horse.

Jeremy Reynolds, Heather’s husband and an endurance rider, said the United States team closely studied the work of the United Arab Emirates crew, reviewing film of the grooms’ movements in the cooldown area for hints about picking up crucial seconds.

“You can see how they kind of devise a pattern so they don’t get jumbled up,” he said.

Sometimes, however, the grooms can do nothing but wait. Sheik Mohammed entered in first place through the gate at the end of the fourth leg. But his horse took nearly five minutes to cool down, and he fell to fifth place as he entered the fifth loop.

Once a horse’s heart rate has fallen, veterinarians check for lameness, listen to its gut for signs of trouble and look for other injuries.

If the horse passes the examination, it continues on to the rest period, which can range from 30 to 50 minutes.

The rest period is “where all the key things go on,” said John Yeoman, who assisted his wife, Christine. “We’ll all have masseurs, we’ll be feeding them, we’ll be giving them electrolytes,” he said.

During the rest period between the second and third loop, the horse belonging to the American rider Lindsay Graham, Monk, received a new shoe while others massaged his hindquarters. Nearby, a team of grooms from the United Arab Emirates walked a horse between the stalls while feeding him a basket of hay.

Simply finishing a race is an accomplishment. Only about 40 percent of riders typically complete endurance races, and Sunday was no different. By 9:30 p.m., with riders still on the course, 42 competitors had been pulled from the race.

Graham’s horse was disqualified after completing the third leg when his heart rate was too high. Graham said she was surprised.

“He wanted to go faster the whole time, was always asking to do a little bit more,” she said. “But stuff happens.” (endurance.net)

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