September 17, 2007

The FEI European Endurance Championship Open Qatar Challenge earlier this month was the first time Portugal had hosted an endurance event of this level. Several nations were slightly apprehensive about the track at in Barroca d'Alva, which although was flat with generally good going was demanding and would require a 'thinking cap' to achieve a good result.

Lately in endurance the trend has been to have one central vet gate from which all loops start and finish. The Championship this year was different, whilst the start and finish were in the same place; all other vet gates were held at a different venue.

The start was in Companhia Das Lezirias, an area with a diverse land use ranging from forestry, to vineyards to agricultural use, located further north than Barocca d'Alva. The race began on September 8, with the first leg 34.5km long, taking competitors south along farm and woodland tracks. Loop two was shorter, only 21.75km and took competitors further south again for 10km before bringing them back up to their second vet gate at Barroca d'Alva.

The UAE were looking strong at VG2, 1st through to 5th represented by the UAE Flag. HE Sh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum (UAE) was in first place riding Kaysand Farrazah. This talented grey gelding had accompanied HE Sh Hamdan's younger brother HE Sh Majid bin Mohammed Al Maktoum (UAE) to second place in the President's Cup in Abu Dhabi in February this year. The horse once again looked in fine form, completing the first two loops at an average of 19.5kph.

Following the third loop (27.5km) of yet more sandy/stoney farm tracks the speed had dropped to just over 19kph. First place had now gone to Sultan bin Sulayem (UAE) with Nashmi, although the UAE were still holding places 1st to 5th with only 1 minute between all 5 riders. They had now developed a lead of some 14 minutes over their closest rivals, Maria Alverez Ponton (ESP), Jaume Punti Dachs (ESP) and Kristel van den Abeele (BEL).

Many countries were still doing well and were all in contention for a team medal. At this point 87% of the starters were still in the race, with virtually all eliminations for lameness. Whilst the track looked sandy and forgiving, many stones were hidden and were starting to take their toll on the horses.

The fourth loop was a repeat of the second, and saw virtually no change in the front runners. However, 13 horses were eliminated here as the track and the heat started to impact on the runners. The UAE continued to dominate, holding 1st to 5th. The speed was also remaining constant at just over 19kph. Whilst the front running speed was fast, the first 46 horses were still within one hour of the leading horse, Zakah Zahara ridden by Mubarak Khalifa bin Shafya (UAE).

Vet Gate 5 saw a dramatic change to both team and individual standings. With only 27km to go team medal hopes were shattered for 5 nations when more than one team member was eliminated from their team. Belgium and USA lost 3 riders each, Germany, Italy, Qatar, and Portugal all lost 2 riders, France, the UAE and Luxembourg one rider.

First to leave the final vet gate was Sultan bin Sulayem (UAE) with the powerful bay gelding Nashmi. He was closely followed by HE Sh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum (UAE), HE Sh Majid bin Mohammed Al Maktoum (UAE) and Mubarak Khalifa bin Shafya (UAE). Fifth to leave was Jaume Punti Dachs from Spain, with French rider Jean Phillippe Frances close behind.

The fight was now on between France, Bahrain and the UAE for Team Gold. All 3 teams had 3 team riders leaving the final vet gate in the top 16. The Battle for the open medals was being strongly contested by Spain, Great Britain and Switzerland.

The final leg of the race headed north from Barocca d'Alva, up through the forests and vineyards to the original venue of Companhia Das Lezirias. Spectators waited anxiously to see who would be the first to appear. Yet more bad luck hit the UAE when HE Sh Majid bin Mohammed Al Maktoum's (UAE) horse fell not far from the finish line. But their bad luck still wasn't over. Sultan bin Salayem (UAE) crossed the line in first place but was utterly devastated when Nashmi's heart rate failed to drop in time for the final vetting. Sultan bin Sulayem, who has been a consistent finisher in Endurance, has had four successful CEI3* finishes already this year.

So, although second to cross the line Mubarak Khalifa bin Shafya won Gold for the UAE in the Open Title, riding 11 year old grey gelding Zakah Zahara. This is the second win over 160km for this pair, having previously taken 1st place at Euston Park (GBR) earlier this year. Zakah Zahara has had a very successful endurance career so far, 5 wins over the past three years, three of which have been this year. Normally based in the UAE the gelding made his first trip to Europe this year and appears to be enjoying the new challenges of a different terrain.

A racing finish for Open Silver and European Gold saw Jean Phillipe Francis (FRA) pip Spanish rider Jaume Punti Dachs to the post by a few seconds. Francis and his mount Hanaba du Bois had finished second at Barroca d'Alva last year at the trial ride, but this year the grey mare stepped up her game. The speed increased from 17.45kph last year to just over 19kph this year, and of course took that big step up from second to first position.

Punti Dachs partnered by Elvis AHB added another good finish to their increasing list. They finished 7th in the President's Cup in 2006, 4th at WEG in Aachen last year and now, winning their first Open medal together have taken Bronze in the Open and Silver in the European.

Bronze in the European went to another Spanish rider, and wife of Silver medalist Punti Dachs, Maria Alverez Ponton. Alverez Ponton (ESP) is currently lying in first place in the FEI World Rankings and is having a fantastic season. Her 12 year old bay gelding, Nobby, breezed across the finish line just minutes behind Francis (FRA) and Punti Dachs (ESP). This was the second 160km completion for the pair having finished 5th in the President's Cup in February.

France, once again, showed their skill and sheer determination when each one of their finishing team members, Philippe Benoit, Virginie Atger and Pascale Dietsch, had final loop speeds of over 21.9kph. French Chef d'Equipe Mr. Jean Louis Leclerc has now gained both the World and European titles with his hugely successful team.

Team Silver in the Open Category went to an ecstatic Bahrain. HH Sh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa (BRN) could not have been happier as he stood proudly with his team on the Podium, just another sign of the continued success of Endurance within the Middle Eastern countries. Spain had to settle for Bronze in the Open when their second team rider home, Jordi Arboix (ESP) with Jour d'Ainoa was eliminated for lameness at the end, despite having put in the fastest final loop of the day with a speed of 24.75kph.

European Team Bronze went to Switzerland, who have had amazing success in the last few years, winning a team medal at each Championship since the Europeans in 2005. An incredible record for such a small country where endurance is not a large sport.

Host nation Portugal and Great Britain also finished complete teams finishing in 5th and 6th respectively. Overall a completion rate of 41% with 36 successful completions over this tough, challenging route. Compliments were paid to the Organising Committee, headed by Mr. Paulo Branco, for the smooth running of the event. A true Championship course; a track with constant changing terrain, high temperatures and high humidity. But overall the resigning thoughts leaving with the competitors was of a great Championship, well organized, tough competition and fair play. Exactly what a Championship should be.