Wednesday, Jun. 5, 2024

Ponton Prevails For Spain In A Dramatic FEI World Endurance Championships

The U.S. team runs into some surprising challenges.

Spain’s Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton took an early lead in the FEI World Endurance Championship 100-mile ride and finished almost unchallenged for the gold medal. Ponton rode her French-bred Arabian Nobby for a ride time of 8:48:06.

American riders weren’t part of any threat for medals, as an unusual set of circumstances kept them out of contention.

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The U.S. team runs into some surprising challenges.

Spain’s Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton took an early lead in the FEI World Endurance Championship 100-mile ride and finished almost unchallenged for the gold medal. Ponton rode her French-bred Arabian Nobby for a ride time of 8:48:06.

American riders weren’t part of any threat for medals, as an unusual set of circumstances kept them out of contention.

Malaysia became the first Southeast Asian country to host the WEC, which was held in Terengganu at the edge of the South China Sea, on Nov. 6-9.

It was also the first time that the event was held so close to the equator and in a tropical climate, and for that reason, the first time that a WEC was run at night, beginning at 5:30 p.m., in order to take advantage of cooler temperatures.

During the day, the thermometer reached 98 degrees with a humidity index of 90 percent.

A trainer who works in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates and Spain for HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ponton has trained Nobby all summer in the heat of Dubai. Nine minutes after Ponton’s arrival, 21-year-old Argentinean Agustin Vita, riding Baraka Ibn Al Tamah, galloped in for silver, and 12 minutes later, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem from the United Arab Emirates gained the bronze on his French-bred Arabian, Tazoul El Parry. The next day, Nobby and Ponton were also awarded the best condition award.

The first 10 riders finished within one hour of the winning time. The gulf countries of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain swept team gold, silver and bronze, respectively.

Lightning Strikes

Having dominated this sport for the first seven years (the U.S. riders won individual gold from 1986 to 1998), the U.S. endurance team did not shirk from the challenge. Under the guidance of U.S. Equestrian Federation Endurance Director Vonita Bowers, and with the wisdom from experience of three-time WEC Champion Becky Hart, a squad was selected from top endurance riders around the country.

Riders and horses spent more than a month in Florida at a training camp to acclimate their horses to the humid conditions of the ride. The four-member team consisted of Meg Sleeper of Frenchtown, N.J., with her mare Syrocco Reveille; Cheryl Dell from Springville, Calif., and Reason To Believe; Jan Worthington of Scales Mound, lll., riding Golden Lightning; and Kathy Brunjes of Bethel, Maine, on Theatric.

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Two-time World Champion Valerie Kanavy of Fort Valley, Va., on her racebred Arabian, Flash Flame, and top-
ranked rider John Crandell of Star Tannery, Va., with HH Saba Shams, rode as individuals.

Fate, always a riding partner, stepped in with a heavy hand. By the end of loop 2, Crandell and Saba Shams,
who had been riding in 24th place, had been eliminated for lameness. Dell had been riding with the handicap of an extreme illness. She was so dehydrated at the end of loop 2 that she was forced to withdraw and was subsequently taken to the onsite hospital.

It was monsoon season in Malaysia. A storm cell delivered a deluge of rain at 9 p.m., and water gathered in instant ponds on the sandy soil. Lightning ripped the sky and struck a pole at the event center, blowing out fuses and frying cameras from ESPN and CNBC while sending shocks to crew members and officials working in the standing water.
The question of the night became, “Where were you when the lightning struck?” The announcer said that the flash went through her microphone into her teeth.

At that moment, Worthington and Sleeper were traveling in 49th and 50th position through the palm plantation and wading through water on the trail. When a lightning bolt hit the tree next to them, both horses, apparently receiving shocks through the water, leapt into the air.

Golden Lightning staggered against Reveille, rocketed backwards, and dumped Worthington before rolling end over end. Worthington was flung around like a rubber ball on a paddle as she gripped the tossing reins, knowing that if the frightened Lightning got loose, he would just keep running.

She recalled that he rolled over at least three times; sometimes she was on top, sometimes on the bottom. “I remember looking up from between his legs at one point, trying to push him off of me,” Worthington said. She lost her hard hat and light, her glasses were gone, her tights torn, and her leg from the knee down was black and blue. She thought it was contact with the tree that gave her the scrapes and bruises on her face.

Sleeper was also knocked to the ground and also held onto her reins as her horse fell and rolled. Sleeper collected herself first and went to help Worthington remount.

World Championships Tidbits

•    The ride site was the newly built Terengganu International Endurance Park, 25 km. north of Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia.

•    The start list of 32 countries and 127 riders included the King of Malaysia, Zainal Abidin Tuanku Mizan, Crown Prince, HH Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum of Dubai and HH Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain.

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•    The sponsored ride delivered $180,000 in prize money, with first place winning $22,000, plus $20,000 for best condition. Monetary completion awards were given up to 15th place, and 48 riders completed the ride.

When the two returned to the vet gate, the horses only showed minor cuts from their ordeal, and the riders were treated with ice and therapy.

Both horses continued on adrenaline for another two loops, but the results from the fall took them out in the end. Reveille was eliminated at the end of loop 4, but Worthington had thought they would make it through, as Lightning showed no outward signs of the crash. Unhappily, after completing 100 miles, Lightning was vetted out at the end for a slight lameness.

Toughing It Out

The only two U.S. riders to complete the ride, Brunjes and Kanavy, had a different ride. At the time the lightning struck on the trail, they were riding conservatively, 30 horses back, on another part of the loop that experienced no deluge.

Brunjes finished the ride in 24th place in a ride time of 10:25:37, and Kanavy came behind her in 25th place in a ride time of 10:48:30.

“I had a great ride,” Brunjes said. “As the anchor team horse, I was asked to do a certain speed for the team. On the first loop, Theatric can get excitable, so we were asked to rate him and to increase the speed on the second loop. After we lost the team, it didn’t matter about my miles per hour. I then rode Theatric as I normally do—picking up the speed as we went.”

Brunjes was no stranger to the course, as she had completed the ride on Theatric at the November 2007 test ride in Malaysia. “This year the way it was laid out, it was a tougher ride,” she said. “We had more deep sand on the trail and at the beach, very deep sand. The fifth loop had more ups and downs. After that loop, there were a lot of eliminations. It was a more technical course this year.”

“I stayed behind and didn’t go out until every horse was around the corner at the start,” said Kanavy. “I was hoping to calm my mare down. Out on the trail she was really quite good, but as soon as we came back in she was a nervous wreck. I had to ride her to make up time on the course as she was wired the entire race. That cost us an hour in the vet gate.

She is a rather hot horse, but she has had a lot of starts. With all of the milling around and the loudspeakers [in the gate hold], perhaps she thought she was at the racetrack.”

Chef d’Equipe Becky Hart commented, “In spite of the outcome, a lot of good things happened here. Everyone worked like a team; when a rider was pulled, they pitched in to help. We are now moving onward and making plans for [the 2010 World Equestrian Games].”

“We had a plan and stuck to it, but we had some bad luck,” said Bowers. “The horses were very ready. We had no metabolic issues, and we had good recoveries. We knew the speeds that we wanted to go, and we stuck fairly close to those speeds. Except for the unforeseen things such as illness and lightning, we rode our ride the way we planned. The selection process gave us the best horses and the best riders, and the training session system of selection worked well.” 

Pamela Burton

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