The World Endurance Championship in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, on Jan. 27 ended with a new endurance world record, an upset team winner, an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, and confusion and controversy over which horse and rider actually won the individual championship.
The first four horses to cross the finish line at Dubai International Endurance City shattered the world record for a 100-mile endurance race, previously set in Abu Dhabi last year. Sheikh Hazza bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, one of the UAE’s 11 entries, galloped across the finish line first with his 11-year-old gelding Hachim after a total riding time of 7:03:22, almost 17 minutes faster than the old record. It was his first World Championship start.
They looked like they’d just returned from a pleasant afternoon’s ride across the desert. But they’d battled for the lead over the last of six loops to finish just under a minute in front of France’s Barbara Lissarague (7:04.14) with her 11-year-old crossbred mare Georgat, whose average speed over the last 11.75-mile loop averaged an incredible 19.39 mph.
Gen. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the patron of endurance riding in Dubai, crossed the line third with his 9-year-old gelding Nashmi (7:08:45). The fourth to come in, also breaking the previous world record of 7:20, was Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan and his Arabian gelding Mindari Aenzac.
The UAE has become the sport’s dominant team, with a broad and deep pool of riders and horses, which includes the 2002 World Champion, Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed al Maktoum, son of Sheik Mohammed. And for much of the day it appeared that it might be a clean sweep by the host country. They led the team standings until two team members were pulled at gate 4, setting the stage for an increase in pace to secure the individual podium spots. At the end of the day, Sheikh Hazza’s average speed over the course was a scorching 14.06 mph.
An ecstatic Italian team held on with three horses and riders to secure their first endurance team gold medal (after winning the silver in 2002), surviving the retirement of one of their team horses, also at gate 4. Their combined riding time of 24:60:39 prevailed over Australia, whose combined total was just under two hours slower. Belgium, a country with only about 300 endurance riders in total, claimed the bronze.
Canada was the only other nation–of 32 starting teams–to finish three riders and earn a team placing. Daphne Richard and her 18-year-old, Arabian gelding Cuchulain passed the final vet check with only a half-hour to spare before reaching the maximum time allowed. The duo was the last to cross the finish line among the 62 finishers from the 175 starters (35.42%, compared to the 60% average at North American 100-mile rides).
The team’s finish was a significant accomplishment for Canada, which only finished one horse in Dubai in 1998, the last time the country fielded a team at a World Championship.
Disappointment grew throughout the day in the U.S. crew area as all four team members were either eliminated or retired. But the close-knit team rallied behind individual rider Becky Harris and her 19-year-old, Arabian mare GA Tyfa Mynte, who overcame a number of pre-competition setbacks to finish 20th (8:47:03).
And when California’s Carolyn Hock and GT Sando rode over the finish line in darkness, in 11:10:13, a large U.S. contingent warmly greeted them.
The race controversy erupted two days later, when the almost 800 riders, crew and officials, along with a large number of UAE royalty, gathered for the medal presentations at Lisaili Fort near Endurance City. Just as the spectacular closing ceremonies were about to begin, rumors began to circulate that a UAE television sports channel had reported a disqualification.
And when the individual riders came into the arena, the French national anthem was playing. Lissarague received the gold medal, while Sheikh Mohammed received the silver and the best condition award for his homebred gelding. Bronze went to another UAE rider, Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, who did not appear on the podium to accept the medal for his ride on Mindari Aenzac in protest of Sheikh Hazza’s disqualification.
Following the ceremony, Ian Williams, the Federation Equestre Internationale’s director of endurance and head of the Ground Jury, declined to comment. But a member of the Veterinary Commission, Yassine Motemri of Tunis, said Sheikh Hazza’s horse had tested positive for a banned substance, in a drug test performed independ-ently by the UAE Racing and Equestrian Federation.
Since this test was not the FEI’s official drug test, and since Sheikh Hazza was disqualified without following the FEI’s protocols or in consultation with FEI officials, the following day the FEI issued a statement saying it had “formally requested an explanation” from the Organizing Committee. As of Feb. 9, the
Organizing Committee had not responded, according to an FEI spokesperson. The FEI’s official results (published here) continue to show Sheikh Hazza as the World Champion.
Lissarague said that she was only told 10 minutes before she entered the stadium that she would be presented with the gold.
“I started the last loop, and I wanted to see how the horse felt,” she said of her finishing speed. “Coming over a little hill, the mare saw the other three horses in front of her and wanted to run after them.”
Lissarague, who lives in Bordeaux, said she trained her horse for the UAE’s sandy track on the beach, three times a week, for two to three hours a day.
Sheikh Mohammed, winner of the European Championship in 2003, called his young horse, Nashmi, the “best in the world.” Nashmi needed only an average time of 1:45 to recover in the vet gates.
The last time Dubai hosted the World Championship, it was American Valerie Kanavy with her High Winds Jedi who won the individual gold. This time, the U.S. mood was decidedly woeful.
“I’m disappointed for the riders, because I know how hard they worked. I’m disappointed for the staff, because I know how hard they worked. But I’m not disappointed in the plan and how they went about it,” said Chef d’Equipe Art Priesz.
He said that a couple of the problems the horses experienced were related to racing in the desert, but some things are just a part of endurance racing. He identified a couple of factors that he said led to the high attrition rate in almost all the teams, including the short hold times, which totaled only three hours.
“I think it’s unfair, and I do not understand why they do it,” said Priesz. “If what they want to do is force riders to ride the horse in a more efficient, in a more appreciative manner, then what they need to do is devise a more technical course–not a harder course–that forces you to change gaits, that lets the horse’s metabolic rhythm change.”
He added, “The speed here creeps up on you. What feels like 11 mph here is really 15 mph. I liken it to riding downhill. We worked really hard in monitoring it.”
Another factor was that many of the riders hit the difficult loop 3 in the heat of the day. There was no breeze, the temperature was in the low 80s, and the sun was intense. While most of the course was packed and graded, this area had more deep sand.
PR Tallymark and Michele Roush were the first of the U.S. squad to be pulled, for metabolic reasons, at gate 4, stunning the rest of the team. At the next gate Beverly Gray’s Regalidon (metabolic reasons) and Dennis Summer’s SHA Ebony Rose (lameness) were eliminated. After a long rest and much discussion with Priesz and the team veterinarians, Carol Giles went out on SAR Tiki Stranger, only to voluntarily retire at Gate 5.
While calling Sheikh Hazza’s performance “spectacular,” Priesz noted that UAE riders have a different perspective on their horses and on race tactics than do American riders. “Our horses are not just tools of the trade. They are our pets, they’re our friends, and they are sometimes, as in the case of Becky Harris, our one and only,” he said.
Harris could hardly believe that a run of bad luck, which began two weeks into the six-week team training camp in Florida in December, ended with her top-20 finish.
“I am so happy. I just can’t believe it worked out this way,” said Harris, whose 19-year-old horse, affectionately known as “Honey,” experienced a bout of colic, then developed a brief lameness. And then Harris wrecked her truck, almost convincing her to give up on her dream of representing her country internationally for the first time. She said the support of her family and a close-knit team kept her going.
“Even if I’d finished in last place, it would have been the best ride of my life,” she gushed.
Harris added that this would probably be the last ride for her horse. “Some of her issues aren’t necessarily because she’s an older horse. I just think I got all my bad luck in six weeks’ time,” she said.
Harris said that the team had a lot of information about the course ahead of time, and that it rode exactly as she thought it would. Her concern came on the fourth loop, when Honey wouldn’t drink, but she re-hydrated herself after the fifth loop.
On the last loop they were on their own. “I think she was sure that no one else had to do that, that she was being punished,” said Harris. “But once we made the turn and she knew she was coming back, she picked up again. But I never asked her to go any faster than she wanted to go.”
They rode the last loop at just over 10 mph.
Nothing But Speed
Halfway through the World Endurance Championships, Ian Williams, the Federation Equestre Internationale’s director of endurance and the president of the Ground Jury, reported that the average speed for the four leaders at that point was 13.4 mph, with the field starting to spread out.
“The very top horses, as the ride goes on, start to show some real quality,” Williams said. “Everything here has got quality, but there is this differential between these super horses at the front and the others.”
The speed would increase slightly during the second half, with first-placed finisher Sheikh Hazza bin Sultan Al Nahyan crossing the line with an average speed of 14.06 mph.
Yassine Motemri of Tunis, a member of the FEI Veterinary Commission, couldn’t help but notice the speed. He said the 35-percent completion rate indicated that the ride was too fast and that there was a problem with qualifying standards.
Motemri noted that if the expenses of the riders who came from 41 countries had not been paid by Sheikh Mohammed, many would have thought twice about bringing second-quality horses. He observed that the only challenge on the course was the speed.
Leonard Liessens, a member of the Belgian bronze-medal team, echoed Motemri’s evaluation, saying that the course was difficult only because it was boring. Liessens said that Orfeo, his 17-year-old Arabian gelding, the only horse at the race to have also raced there at the 1998 World Championships, got bored and lost his temper on course.
Nevertheless, these World Championships had more competitors than any FEI World Championship ever, in any discipline. In addition to the 175 riders, there were 750 support personnel and 42 officials, meaning it will be entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest international equestrian event ever held. The horses came from 41 nations on six continents.
There was also extensive media coverage, with 250 television stations around the world showing the event at some point during the day. The host’s official website carried a live webcast and took 35,000 hits in its first four hours.