Wednesday, May. 22, 2024

France, The UAE And Australia Will Set The Pace At Aachen

In bringing all of the international equestrian disciplines together for their World Championships every four years, the FEI's World Equestrian Games present an endurance test of their own to the local organizing committee and to the nations competing. This year, that symbolism is confirmed by the scheduling of the World Endurance Championship as the first event of the WEG, on Aug. 21.
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In bringing all of the international equestrian disciplines together for their World Championships every four years, the FEI’s World Equestrian Games present an endurance test of their own to the local organizing committee and to the nations competing. This year, that symbolism is confirmed by the scheduling of the World Endurance Championship as the first event of the WEG, on Aug. 21.

The course will present some unique challenges as the championship returns for the first time since 2000 to a northern European venue. Aachen’s experience with hosting annual international events and previous World Championships bodes for a better horse-welfare experience than transpired in Jerez (Spain) in 2002, where the worst kind of tragedy befell two of the endurance horses entrusted to us as competitors. It’s important to learn from those horses’ deaths at every level of responsibility to avoid repeating the same mistakes, for when those tragedies occur, we’re all responsible.

Despite the organizing committee’s reduction of riders per nation from six to five, there may still be in excess of 125 combinations competing, representing anywhere from 25 to 35 nations.

While most of the media and public attention generally goes to the individual gold medalist, each country’s preparation really focuses on the team result. And that’s why that’s my focus here.

French Motivation
The international endurance community has lost some of its heroes since the last World Championship, in Dubai in January 2005, not just from
tarnish, but also through tragedy. The tragic losses of French Chef d’Equipe Pierre Cazes last year and of U.S. Equestrian Federation Endurance Director Mary Lutz in June have created different types of holes in their programs, but similar holes in the community’s heart.

The French team, riding so close to their home ground and in a familiar environment, stand as team favorites. Even though they’ll be competing for the first time in more than a decade without their Rasputinesque leader, the French have one of the most well-supported programs and a very experienced group of riders grown from within their own system. Familiar names include Virginie Atger, Phillipe Benoit and Virginie Simon, and they’ll be joined by a cadre’ of riders with success beyond their borders. No other nation has produced the consistent success across the board at World Endurance Championships.

But their team disappointment at the last World Championships should also drive this team. This WEG provides an opportunity to step out of one person’s shadow while still honoring the persona and character that created their program.

The Belgians can look to significant individual and team successes and performances over the past two years to fuel their expectations in Aachen. Top-five finishes by Leonard Liesens and Dominique Evrard at Aachen’s 2005 test event justifies those expectations, especially since their team has placed in recent European and World Championships.

As the host, the German federation’s leaders and members–smarting from its disappointments at the 2004 Olympics–would dearly aspire to begin the WEG with a medal-winning endurance performance. And that’s very likely.

The Aachen course is the home training ground of Melanie and Sabrina Arnold. Either or both can be expected to contend for a high individual placing, which presents a significant team opportunity if another rider can contribute a third consistent individual performance.

The Italians seem to thrive on chaos and some amount of adversity. Regardless, their performances in Jerez and a dominating result in Dubai make them one of the legitimate favorites to medal. In doing so, they’ll push the front of the pack to thin out the pretenders, and their strategy will help any experienced team riders who can stay in contact without risking too much. The trick is to balance not burning out your own horse against falling out of contact and then relying on the leaders to implode.

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The Spanish also expect to make their presence felt. Without bad luck in Dubai, they might have improved their fourth-placed team performance in Jerez.

The Swedes underlined the importance of finishing a team at the 2005 Aachen test event, since they were the only team to complete the event. But they have little else to offer besides that consistency.

The English are continuing a long cycle of rebuilding. Their work will lead to a breakout performance eventually, and Aachen could be an appropriate venue.

Family Matters
Of course, the United Arab Emirates riders will step onto the course from the most well-prepared, well-financed and scientifically advanced program in the world. Their drive to achieve and their acceleration around the learning curve in a relatively short period of time has been astounding, with individual top-10 finishes at the World Championships in 2000, the individual gold in 2002, and the individual silver in 2005, as well as both team and individual successes in that same period at the European Championships.

The anticipated entry of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and four of his sons to represent the UAE presents a story in itself. It seems mythical when considering the degree of international success they have achieved over the past seven years.

But now they stand at a precipice. Can they combine their individual performances to achieve the most unique family team result ever in equestrian sports–a single family representing their country and earning the team gold? Finishing as a team in the World Championships has been an elusive goal for them, and we’ll find out this month if they’ve developed a strategy to accomplish it.

Bahrain stands ready to build on their successes at the 2005 championships and challenge their neighbors in the UAE on the medal podium.

And in seeking to host the 2008 World Endurance Championships and build on their prominent places in the FEI’s individual world rankings, the Malaysians can be expected to assert themselves individually, hoping that translates into a team medal. That recipe doesn’t usually work, though.

The South American teams can be expected to continue their emergence. The success of Argentina and Uruguay at the 2005 Pan American Championship in Argentina speaks for itself, and their presence in Aachen will be more than window dressing. They each bring strong and experienced riders and staffs to support their efforts.

Plus, the Brazilians are expected to take this opportunity to demonstrate their program is ready to take the next step, building on a growing youth program and the awarding of the first Pan American Championship for Endurance to be held as part of the Pan Am Games in 2007. (The Pan American Championships for Endurance in 1999 were held at the same time as the Pan Am Games in Manitoba, Canada, but outside the formal event.)

Don’t Count These Guys Out
The Canadian team followed their triumph at the 2003 Pan American Championship in Washington with a promising team completion at the 2005 World Championships, but they were disappointed at the North American Endurance Champion-ship in Maryland in 2005. They’ll probably seek a steady course in Aachen while looking to finish as a team.

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New Zealand’s preparations have been quiet, but the athleticism of both their horses and their riders makes them a legitimate dark horse for a medal, especially if conditions are tough.

And the Australians should be a favorite for a medal, perhaps even a gold medal.

The combination of experienced horses and riders, combined with predictable world-class performances internationally and their ability to maintain sound repeat performers who have real speed puts pressure on a field that doesn’t match those criteria nearly as well.

Peter Toft on Murdoch and Meg Wade on China Doll are legitimate favorites to medal individually. And the additional experience of Penny Toft, Jennifer Gilbertson and Brooke Sample makes this the deepest squad competing, with the possible exception of the UAE.

U.S.–On The Verge?
The U.S. program has continued a rebuilding effort commenced in 2001, modeled in significant part after the French system and the obvious efforts being made in the Arabian Gulf. Closer monitoring, team-training clinics and instruction, and increased contact over a longer selection-trial period have resulted in more nominees and larger numbers of highly qualified horses to choose from.

The current team–Kathy Downs on Pygmalian, Joe Mattingley/SA Lari-bou, Steve Rojek/Finch, Meg Sleeper/ Shyrocco Troilus and Christoph Schork/Taj Rai Hassan–represents that work. All are former national team members and have off-continent experience. Downs may be sitting astride one of the soundest and best-prepared equine athletes the U.S. team has been fortunate enough to enter in some time. And the sixth horse, Cheyenne XII, with alternate rider Jennifer Niehaus, is a consistent performer capable of real speed, as evidenced by her closing stages at the North American Championships in Maryland last October.

Two-time World Champion Valerie Kanavy will be the chef d’equipe, and experienced international rider Suzanne Hayes will be her assistant. Supporting them will be Dr. Ann Stuart, who’s been on the team staff since 2001; Dr. Tom Timmons, an experienced ride veterinarian; and farrier Jeff Pauley, who’s been working with the national training squad for two years.

The preparations last year and this spring, led by Tom Johnson and including clinics from three-time World Champion Becky Hart and Robin Groves, have also been a key to the effort.

These are just a few of the people who’ve been instrumental in rebuilding the U.S. program, and their efforts will get a severe test with the loss of Mary Lutz, which has left a large logistical and emotional support hole.

Still, these U.S. riders are well-prepared, well-schooled, and well-conditioned and peaked, and their result will likely be a positive reflection of that. While anything can happen, and usually does, preparation removes many of the uncertainties.

Art Priesz, of Ivanhoe, Minn., was the U.S. endurance team’s chef d’equipe from 2001 to 2005. He is the USEF vice president for endurance, and he rode in the 1991 North American Endurance Championships.

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