South Woodstock, VT, August 27, 2002 - "Ice! Electrolytes! Action!" Only something like the Iditarod sled-dog race could match the excitement and drama of the human-animal spectacle that is the international endurance ride.
San Jose, California rider Heather Bergantz of the USA's Pacific South team was first out of Vet Check 7 at Mile 86 of the Pan Am Endurance Championship in South Woodstock, Vermont on Saturday evening. Keep in mind, the descent from the vet check at Appledore Farm was a bank that most event horses would have backed away from. And there was a pond at the bottom of the bank, not to mention a photographer (me) blocking the way.
But Heather guided her chestnut Arabian Crystals Charm (aka "Red") down the bank without a glance back, or down. Her eyes were already fixed on the finish, 14 miles away at the Green Mountain Horse Association showgrounds.
At the bottom of the bank, Red took off in a still-floating trot. In a second, he was out of sight.
A few hours later, Heather and Red were at the finish. And no other riders were in sight. They had completed the rigorous 100-mile course in 10 hours, 39 minutes. The next morning, they would be awarded the Best Condition Award as well.
In a matter of hours, rumors were flying on the Internet: According to the USET, "Red" was salvaged from a slaughterhouse auction for $600.
Speculation is that the 9-year-old Crabbet-bred Arabian from California's Central Valley will be the next poster-child for you-can-do-it horsemen everywhere. I can see the sculptors at the Breyer factory gearing up now!
Heather, just 24 years old, has a solid-gold history of completing endurance rides in the hot California and Nevada circuits. She was seventh in the 1999 Tevis Cup, but pulled Red during the 2000 Tevis for a lameness problem. Just last month, she and Red won the Swanton Pacific 75/100 mile ride.
Eventually, the remaining nine Top Ten finishers would emerge from the darkness into the glare of lights at the finish line. USA East riders Steve Rojek and Sue Greenall, neighbors who live "up the hill" from GMHA, galloped across together, which was a brave act, given the pit of darkness that lay before them and their horses.
But it had been that kind of day (and night, since Steve and Sue crossed the finish a little after midnight).
And late into the night and next morning, delighted finishers straggled in; 58 of 88 starters completed the ride, which passes through farm yards, past Rockefeller mansions, across rivers, and has very few, if any, level spots. One section of the ride even bears the poetic name of "Cloudland."
The Gold Medal for best overall team completion was won by the USA East team, which consisted of Brenda Baird and Bells Snitzel, Stagg Newman and Jayel Super, Dinah Rojek and Phoenix, and Meg Sleeper and Shyrocco Troilus. Individual USA team members finished third (Rita Swift and Just Cass), fourth (Stagg Newman), fifth (Steve Rojek and Smoke Rise Finally), sixth (Sue Greenall and Shyrocco Jazz), seventh (Meg Sleeper), and tenth (Connie Caudill and Karma Phoenix).
Conditions for the ride seemed perfect. The early morning start and late-night finish were "polar fleece" weather, around 50 degrees. The daytime high was in the high seventies, but humidity was low to non-existent.
Vermont is a paradise for trail riders. I don't think that they intentionally maintain the dirt roads for horses, but horsemen benefit from the fact that the roads are so hilly and curvy that maintaining them as dirt creates a safer, more manageable surface, especially in the long winter. They send out the grader a few times a year to level out the washboards, especially after mud season in the spring, and voila: The perfect trail-riding surface. You could ride for days and only have to cross a few paved roads. In any other such wealthy community, the summer-only residents would demand pavement.and get it. Not so in this valley-of-the-horse.
There's very little car traffic on the back roads of Vermont, making it an exceptionally safe place to ride too. And the natives (for the most part) are horse friendly.they'll not only slow down for riders, they'll even wave!
Credit should be given to the foreign competitors from as far away as Great Britain, Germany, Australia, Romania, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, as well as an excellent turnout of two teams from Canada. Jennifer Noblin of Great Britain was the highest finishing foreign rider; Wendy Benns of the Canada East team received the "First Featherweight" award and finished in the Top Ten.
While 90 percent of the horses entered were Arabians, there were some notable exceptions: a Trakehner, a Mustang, a Morgan and many Arabian crosses, particularly Anglo Arabs (Arabian x Thoroughbred). But the crowd's favorite was a delightful and personable Clydesdale/Arabian/Hackney cross on the Canada East team, who was still going strong halfway through the race.
Did he finish? Or is he still, like me, missing in action, so taken by the beautiful Vermont scenery and cloudless skies that it seems a shame to head for home.