Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2024

Rojek Races The Rain To Win Biltmore Endurance Challenge


An all-day rain on the mountainous Biltmore Estate caused the trails to become treacherous for the FEI/AERC 100- and 50-mile Biltmore Endurance Challenge competitors on May 5, in Asheville, N.C.
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An all-day rain on the mountainous Biltmore Estate caused the trails to become treacherous for the FEI/AERC 100- and 50-mile Biltmore Endurance Challenge competitors on May 5, in Asheville, N.C.

When the 100-mile riders saddled up for the 6 a.m. start, it was 56 degrees and dry. But  before they were released on the course, the rain began and continued through mid-afternoon. The temperature never got above the low 60s, which is great for the horses, but it was the trail that took a toll. Of the 59 starting the 100-mile course, only 32 completed.

“You couldn’t relax because you had to help your horse every step of the way,” stated middleweight division rider Steve Rojek, who won the FEI/AERC/AHA 100-mile event in 10:16 on Finch.

“It was a treacherous course because of the rain,” Rojek continued. “Maintaining stability was difficult for the horses. There were places that were so slippery that they literally would lock their limbs and slide down the descents. Anybody that finished this ride did a fine job of riding and taking care of their horse.

“Luck is always a factor in finishing any ride because there are so many things that can go wrong. I feel very lucky today,” said Rojek, who hopes to ride Finch in the Pan American Championship in Brazil this July.

First featherweight and second to finish was Kathy Brunjes of Maine on Theatric, 6 minutes after Rojek. “On the last loop, I decided to make a run for it,” explained Brunjes.

“I was 20 minutes behind Lois McAfee and Steve Rojek, and there were riders 4, 6 and 9 minutes behind me. I left the last check trying to see if I could catch Steve or Lois. I did catch up with Lois and then took off at a faster pace about 2 miles before the finish line.” Brunjes’ ride time was 10:23:05.

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Lois McAfee was riding her mare Tonka Toi and completed 40 seconds later.

Unexpected Results

Meg Sleeper, the first lightweight to complete, was concerned about how her homebred horse, Syrocco Troilus, a.k.a. Troy, would handle the tough course. “Troy was not quite himself,” she said. “His recoveries were fine, and he ate and drank. However, he often is quite a bull in the first couple of vet checks and he did none of that. He is also a horse who has never liked mud, so that could have been part of it, but I was definitely watching him very closely.”

Despite their concern, Troy had the High Vet Score and earned Best Condition. “Maybe he is just finally getting manners!” laughed Sleeper.

Joni Buttram, 12, completed her seventh 100-mile competition, bringing her total career miles to 3,475. Completing in 22nd place, in 15:34, she was riding Cash Bonus, a half-Arabian, half-Tennessee Walker.

There were some good competitors, veteran riders and horses that were unable to complete, primarily as a result of being pulled before lameness became a career-ending injury. Top contenders such as Valerie and Danielle Kanavy, both having won World Championships, Rita Swift, Cheryl Van Deusen, and Canadian Ruth Sturley did not complete.

Valerie Kanavy, who was riding Ironman Gold, said, “Ironman’s heels were so sore he was sensitive to thumb pressure. Bahia Gold, the horse that Danielle [Kanavy] was riding, was also pulled for lameness. He doesn’t trot out well in the vet checks. If he was better at trotting for the vets, I think he would have finished and done well. Metabolically, he was fine and not out of energy. Actually, all our horses were really good metabolically. With the wet ground, stones and roots, it was a big change for them coming from our winter in Florida.”

Of the veteran riders who completed were international competitors Jeannie Waldron, Kathy Downs, Connie Walker, Karen Isaacs and Canadian Yvette Vinton, to name a few.

The final riders to complete were Roxanne Ciccone on FM Spirit Wind and Susan Kain on Excaliber. Because this ride doesn’t allow a tie, these riders completed in 18:22 minutes, with 1 second separating them.

Shiloh Weather

The 50-mile competition, with 106 entries, started at 7 a.m., under a steady rainfall. Pam Weidel of Boxwood Farms, Pa., and Mary Howell, Va., set the pace. Weidel was riding her favorite horse, AF Big Bucks, and Howell was on her seasoned gelding,

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AM Baskin Count Shiloh, better known as Shiloh. Howell said, “This year’s forecast was tailor-made for my big-bodied half-Quarter Horse. I call it ‘Shiloh weather.’ I knew he could win if I stayed calm and did my part. At the start, though, I went the wrong way, which was quite embarrassing since this is my eighth year coming to Biltmore! But as he always does, Shiloh made up for my mistake and caught up Pam Weidel’s horse in about 5 minutes. I think we did the first 5 miles in 15 minutes and the first loop in less than 90 minutes!”

Weidel went out of the competition, but two riders challenged Howell in a race-off at the finish line—Bonni Hannah on Rezus Respite and T.J. Vore on Moon Cheyenne.

“As we neared the finish,” said Howell. “I couldn’t wait to feel Shiloh’s Quarter Horse half kick into high gear. He knew where he was and took off like a rocket. [The timer] clocked him at 29.4 miles per hour crossing the finish line, but I was actually pulling him up at that point!”

Much to Howell’s delight, Shiloh, who has 3,500 career miles, earned his third Best Condition award. Although he is part Arabian, the Quarter Horse bulk typically penalizes his recoveries, thus he is not often a candidate for Best Condition. But this was, after all, “Shiloh weather.”

Hannah completed 2 seconds behind Howell, and Vore crossed the finish line 1 second later. Although Hannah’s Best Condition score was less than 13 points off Howell’s, there was a three-way tie for High Vet Score between the third, sixth and ninth-place finishers: Elizabeth Galloway on Stone, Deborah McClary on HH Trinity, and Claire Godwin on Sundown Reveille.

While riders aren’t exactly oblivious to the rain, they enjoy what they do. Cheryl Newman, the ride manager, was delighted with how the riders and crews remained upbeat, even cheerful, under daunting circumstances.

International competitor Meg Sleeper said, “As always, I was amazed by the wonderful management, volunteers, crews and vets that tortured themselves by sitting out in the rain so we crazy riders could
compete. The endurance community is an amazing family, and even in those nasty weather conditions, it was wonderful to be a part of it.”

Genie Stewart-Spears

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