The weekend’s World Endurance Championships at Euston Park have been described as a showcase for the sport, with FEI first vice-president John McEwen declaring it a “wonderful sporting occasion”.
The race was won by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum riding Madji Du Pont, in a ride time of 7hr and 45sec at an average speed of 22.82km/hr. The first three riders home were all from the United Arab Emirates which also won the team competition taking gold ahead of France with Oman emerging as a new force in the sport to take bronze.
Speaking after the closing ceremony held at Euston Hall on August 26, John McEwen said: “I have been involved with endurance riding for nearly 30 years and have watched it grow almost from its infancy – yesterday was a showcase for the discipline and a wonderful sporting occasion. I had the privilege of being out on course for two of the loops and seeing the riders and crews at work and the atmosphere was incredible.
“I also watched the finish and I thought that the horses came in after 160km in superb condition. The level of this sport particularly the standard in managing the horses is extremely high.
“Watching the best condition award the morning after the event is something more people should see. The way in which the horses came out is simply amazing – some of the grooms even had difficulty holding them. They all look as though they could comfortably go out and do it again which is how it should be.”
Competitors from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) claimed team gold and all three individual medals at the event on Saturday.
Sheikh Rashid Dalmook Al Maktoum rode Yamamah at an average speed of 22.8 km/h into silver medal position, while Ali Khalfan Al Jahouri and Vendaval claimed individual bronze.
When the combined scores of Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Rashid were added to those of Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed Al Maktoum who finished sixth with Kangoo D’Aurabelle at an average speed of 21.78 km/h, the UAE also claimed team gold as they finished a full two hours ahead of the silver medallists from France. Oman took team bronze, while the USA slotted into fourth place ahead of Belgium in fifth.
A total of 147 horse-and-rider combinations from 38 countries – Argentina, Australia, Austria, Algeria, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Germany, Great Britain, Guatemala, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Lithuania, Malaysia, The Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, USA – lined out for the 14th running of these Championships, which took place over a 160km course.
And there was a dramatic conclusion to the event when a powerful thunderstorm struck in the early evening. The top 52 individuals and top four teams had already finished and the medals had been decided, but some of the slower competitors had still not started out on the sixth and final loop. The inclement weather meant that there were concerns for the health and safety of horses, riders and everyone else involved due to the thunder, fork-lightning and torrential rain that suddenly descended. As a result, the distance was reduced to allow those combinations still on the latter stages of the course to finish at vet gate five and to be classified according to timings on the shortened distance.
“We called the local police and the nearby airforce base who checked on their weather radar, and when we were told the storm would continue until after dark, which was possibly two hours later, we decided that we couldn’t take the risk to carry on in those conditions,” Ian Williams, the FEI’s Director of Non-Olympic Sports, explained afterwards.
“It was the best decision to take and we produced a final classification in terms of distance travelled and their times for the lower placings, so everyone was happy.”
John Robertson, Technical Advisor to the Championships, said: “The weather conditions provided us with major challenges towards the end of the ride but we had the systems in place to cope and react quickly. That aside the route and the fantastic going in this area had held up well.”
The star-studded field included Spain’s Maria Alvarez Ponton who was attempting to match the record set by the USA’s Becky Hart, winner of three world titles in succession in 1988, 1990 and 1992 riding the great RO Grand Sultan.
Alvarez Ponton already had two World and two European titles under her belt, partnering the brilliant Nobby whose ability to cope with an incredible variety of terrain has made the 17 year old horse something of a legend. In the final analysis the super-charged 148cm veteran had to settle for fourth place when finishing with an average speed of 22.18 km/h, just nudged out of bronze medal spot by Ali Khalfan Al Jahouri and Vendaval, who were competing as individuals for the UAE. But for many, Nobby has already penned his name into the history books as the greatest endurance horse of all time.
The US just missed out on the team medal podium, but the UAE lived up to their billing as firm favourites to claim the title following their victories at the FEI World Endurance Championships in Terengganu, Malaysia four years ago and at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, USA in 2010.
The French side of Pierre Fleury (Kergof), Philippe Tomas (Quotien Persky), Jean-Phillippe Frances (Qrafik la Majorie) and Phillipe Benoit (Akim du Boulve) took the silver ahead of Oman’s Hisham Saleh Mahmood Al Farsi (Pulco de Baratier), Abdullah Said Salim Al Siyabi (Penchab Sully), Mahmood Marhoon Salim Al Firi (Rudlan) and Ahmed Salim Mohamed Al Hamdam (Ourour de Galonne).
As the Duke of Grafton, on whose estate the FEI World Endurance Championships 2012 took place, pointed out during Friday’s official opening ceremony, the gathering of the world’s leading endurance riders from all corners of the globe was the culmination of nearly a decade of development at this venue, which first staged an endurance ride in 2005.
The course, which also crossed into surrounding farmland, certainly proved tough and testing, with a variety of terrain from forest tracks to grassland and sand. “To compete for your country at this level takes years of dedication and hard work to develop the special partnership between horse and rider, and supreme athleticism to complete that gruelling 100 miles in one day,” the Duke said.
Reflecting on his double gold performance, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum said Madji du Pont “gave me a wonderful ride – all the way through he felt incredible!” One of the world’s leading racehorse owners, Sheikh Mohammed said that he only competes “because I enjoy taking part in endurance. I do not go out to get a result, I go out to have fun. I do not try to change position, but ride my own ride”.
Speaking after the ride, Mohammed Esse Al Adhab of the Dubai Equestrian Club said: “We are very pleased with the result. We reached our target – where can we go from here?”
He added that the individual win for Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum had been agreat personal achievement for the Vice-President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai.
“It is well known that HH Sheikh Mohammed is a horse lover. From his first introduction to endurance he started to love the sport. He is an endurance man – he has kept going with his target until he achieved it.”
Christophe Pelissier, team vet for second placed France said that the result had been a good one for the squad now under the charge of chef d’equipe Benedicte Emon-Bon.
“This was a strong team. Silver was our target and we will be aiming higher next time,” he said. “This was one of the best world Championships we have seen and our thanks go to the organising committee.”
For Oman, somewhat the surprise winner of the bronze medal, chef d’equipe Sinan Al Abri said competing at the championships had been “a dream come true”.
“We have been trying to for nearly eight years to get here and it was fantastic for us.” He described how the agony of a series of departures for squad members had made a team completion look unlikely at one point.
“We thought we were not going to do it but we decided to learn from the expertise of the French on the trail and followed them.”
With French-bred horses and a French trainer as part of the team, it was a strategy that paid off.
Ian Williams said that from a technical point of view the championships had been faultless. “We had a venue in Euston Park that was outstanding and a track that challenged the best in the world and produced competitive performances of the highest level. What we have here is a wonderful legacy with a venue that has been developed over the years to an exceptional level on a green-field site and that can be used for events of this kind in the future.”
James MacEwan, MD of Janah Management, organisers of the ride paid tribute to his organising team.
“Every single person involved has made their own individual contribution to the success of this event. When you consider that the Janah team has organised the Championships while still continuing to operate our main activity of transporting hundreds of horses a week around the world, it is a huge achievement.
“I also want to add my thanks to the host the Duke of Grafton and Euston Estate, all the local landowners whose land we crossed, to the sponsors, Longines, Meydan and Emaar and to the volunteers without whom none of this would have been possible.”