Spain has defended its team title at the Longines FEI Endurance World Championship in Italy, with riders from the UAE taking out the top two individual places in a contest with only a 35% completion rate.
Of the 74 entries, 48 were eliminated, and 33 of those were put out through lameness. There were three disqualifications and two retirements.
Brazil celebrated its first-ever endurance championship medal when taking team silver ahead of France, and Chilean rider Boni Viada de Vivero made history as the first from his country to take out a World Championship medal, winning individual bronze at San Rossore in Pisa.
This was the first championship to run under the new FEI Endurance Rules, and in a dramatic competition it seemed that the individual title also looked set to fall into Spanish hands when Omar Blanco Rodrigo and his brilliant grey, For Ferro, moved up from fifth to first after the second loop and stayed out in front until the closing stages. But the speed and fitness of the UAE horses, Haleh who clinched gold for Salem Hamad Saeed Malhoof Al Kitbi, and Birmann Aya who slotted into the silver medal spot for Mansour Saeed Mohd Al Faresi, saw them surge ahead in the final loop to finish neck-and-neck and hand-in-hand without a challenger in sight.
Haleh’s heart rate never went above 50 beats per minute and at the very end of the 160km test registered just 47. At the final vet-check the 10-year-old Australian-bred mare looked completely unfazed as she nibbled some grass while the French-bred Birmann Aya, who has a tremendous record for speedy finishes, was also chilled with a heart-rate of 54.
Haleh was bred at Bullio Arabians and was originally named Bullio Blue Sue (Kevisan Park Kentucky Blue x Saracen Sukalata, by Iraki Iskander). She has had four foals bred by embryo transfer. Last September, she was fifth at the venue in a junior 120km event, and in June of 2019 won over 120km at Euston Park with Sheikh Rashid Dalmook Al Maktoum.
Bronze medalist Viada de Vivero produced the most mature of rides, and the 27-year-old got a great reception from the Italian supporters as he is based in Italy. Lying 19th after the first loop he improved to 17th, 16th, 10th and then fifth before clinching third and bronze with the nine-year-old Chilean-bred As Embrujo. He said afterwards: “I can hardly believe it! I knew I had a good horse but to have one that’s in the top-three in the world – now that is just incredible!”.
Gold medalist Al Kitbi was never far off the lead, finishing the first two phases in third place, moving into second after loop three and staying there until the final push over the 20km sixth-phase course. In contrast, Al Faresi, who is also 25, was lying 13th after the first loop but improved to third by loop four and in the end only one-hundredth of a second separated him from his gold-medal-winning compatriot.
Al Kitbi said the final loop was particularly tough. “Until the last five kilometres the rest were pushing and making it hard for us, and in the final vet-check I was so nervous I thought my heart might burst!”
Three teams left in contention
The individual gold and silver medallists were the only two of the five-man UAE team to complete. A total of 12 countries contested the team title but just three finished, and it was a major battle for the medal placings. The strong side from Bahrain were big favourites, but Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa retired and his four running mates were all eliminated. The gold and silver medallists from Spain and Brazil each finished with just the essential three team members while the bronze medallists from France completed with an impressive four.
And although the Spanish appeared to be running away with it at the outset, they were under intense pressure when their two main contenders were eliminated for metabolic issues with their horses. Jaume Punti Dachs and Alex Luque Moral claimed individual gold and silver along with team gold at the last World Championships in Samorin, Slovakia four years ago, but Luque Moral’s Eryvan was vetted-out after Phase 4 and the Punti Dachs’ JM Bucefala experienced the same fate after Phase 5 today.
So Blanco Rodrigo could take no chances with Spanish-bred For Ferro over the last 20km, needing to finish safely if his team was to stay in with a chance. When he clinched individual sixth spot and Angel Soy Coll, another member of the victorious 2016 team, finished fourth with Warrens Hill Chayze, a British bred anglo-arabian (Chatanz x Cathy de Boisset, by Dormane) the Spanish effort was bolstered.
It was close, as the third score posted by 2008 and 2010 individual gold medallist Maria Alvarez Ponton was critical and there was huge tension while her horse, French-bred Mandany, was closely examined at the final vet-check. But a big roar went up when he was passed, leaving her in individual 15th place and finalising the total team time of 23:10:34 which left Spain in gold but just 3:01 ahead of Brazil in silver while the French posted 23:43:01 for the bronze.
The Brazilians lost Rodrigo Moreira Barreto at the first vet-gate but Philippe de Azevedo Morgulis (Saiph SBV), Andre Vidiz (Chambord Endurance) and Renato Salvador (Uzes Trio) stood firm to finish eighth, ninth and 10th respectively, thereby giving the victorious Spanish a real run for their money.
The French, who claimed team silver at the last four World Championships, lost Charles Cappeau and Camil des Ormeaux after the fourth loop, but Nicolas Ballarin (Anir de la Teuliere), Gaele Ollivier Jacob (Pot Made), Margot Thomas (Kalon Milin Avel) and Roman Lafaure (Akim Cabirat) all completed to ensure their place on the podium.