World Equestrian Games Endurance Champion Scores a Title Sweep on Three Continents

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She may be largely unknown to the American public, but Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton and her super-horse, Nobby, made sure their names and hoofprints would be in the history books of the sport of Endurance on Sunday when when they added the individual gold medal at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky to their 2008 World Championship and 2009 European Championship titles. The hat-trick has never been done before; some news sources in Europe are declaring that Maria has won the ?Grand Slam? of Endurance.

I enjoyed watching her because she did seem quite mysterious. I'd also like to point out what I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere; that is, that (unless I am mistaken) her trio of titles was won on three different continents: the 2008 world title was in Malaysia, then the European and now the 2010 World title won on North American soil. That's quite a feat, particularly on one very well-traveled horse.

The following is an excerpt from the official account of the winning ride from the FEI, to give you some more insight into Maria and Nobby:

Nobby's extraordinary recovery-rate proved key to their success once again. But Ponton herself is something of a super-woman. Only seven weeks ago she gave birth to her daughter, Maria, yet she had the stamina, skill, physical fitness and concentration to win the coveted title against the sharpest competition today.

Ponton and Nobby first burst onto the international scene in December 2006 when slotting into third in the 120 kilometres race in Dubai and they have been a force to be reckoned with ever since. Her husband, Jaume Punti-Dachs who is one of Sheikh Mohammed's leading trainers, is also a highly competitive international Endurance competitor so while Maria was waiting for their baby to arrive Jaume kept Nobby in good shape, steering him into fourth in the Dubai CEI 3-Star in April. Today however his job was looking after Sheikh Mohammed's horses while his wife and her team ensured Nobby gave of his best. Her win looked like a breeze for Ponton and her little 148cms super-champ, but the winner insisted that while the win felt wonderful, it had been no easy victory.

She admitted that securing this title so soon after the birth of her baby was something of a tall order. "I thought it was probably impossible to compete at the Games once I was pregnant. But I was riding him for the first five months and my husband took him over then. I've been back riding for the last couple of weeks" she explained to the astonished listeners.

Talking about Nobby she said "he has a huge heart and it responds really well but when he wins a race he doesn't just win it with his heart, he also wins it with his head!" she pointed out. She said that this win was much more difficult than the one she faced when taking the World title in Malaysia two years ago.

Nobby will now have a two-month break but he won't be turned out in a field because he travels with Ponton wherever she goes and she is now heading back to Dubai where she spends half the year - the other half based in England. Her next target may be the 2011 European Championships, but for today she was just delighted with her extraordinary horse and happy to return to her baby daughter to tell her the good news. Those who saw the 34-year-old rider and her incredible 15-year-old horse finishing so fresh and elated today knew they were watching a special moment in the history of any sport -- they were simply in a class of their own.

(excerpt used with permission of the FEI)

And so you have it, superlatives all around from the first day at WEG: A human athlete to admire, an equine athlete to covet (and study), a perfect day for an endurance race and a superb course.

Photo: Ponton as she left the last gate. She lives half the year in Dubai and half the year in England. Photo ?? Fran Jurga.

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