This was my third trip to Malaysia. I first came to compete at the Melaka International Endurance event as a rider for the United States Equestrian Endurance Team. This time I received an invitation from Che Mat Din, General Manager for the King of Malaysia and the Royal Terengganu Endurance Stables--The Kings? stables.
The Sultans? Cup Terengganu Endurance Challenge hosts over 80 local and international riders. It is a 120k (75 mile) course over much of the same area as the 2008 World Endurance Championship. The Malaysia King, an avid and accomplished endurance rider, leads the start. His official title: His Majesty, Seri Paduka Baginda Yang DiPertuan Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin (There must be a respectful ?short-cut? in official introductions for endurance rider friends.)
The airline journey was an endurance event in itself! I flew Malaysian Airlines. The staff was very polite, cheerful and hospitable--which reflects the whole of Malaysa?s people. My endurance traveling companion, Steph Teeter, and I found the Kuala Lumpur airport is very modern and efficient with duty free shops lining the concourses with walls of rich chocolates, jewelry, electronics, liquor and other trinkets that I didn't need at this time. Clearing customs here is very uncomplicated, fast and courteous. Yes, there is a Welcome USA sign and representatives in a sea of blue 2010 Sultans Cup polo shirts. The traditional handshake with a touch back to the heart is sincere. Everywhere, there are full size billboards announcing the Sultans Cup.
A brief history of Endurance in Malaysia:
A Malaysian team attended the 1998 World Endurance Championship. (riding whatever they had - polo horses, thoroughbreds, criollos). They qualified by riding a circular track for 120km. But they qualified! One rider completed. Endurance rides began in Malaysia - first in Sabah (on the large island, north of Borneo), then a few more rides on the mainland. Edaran Berhad (a technology company based in KL) became a large supporter - Tansri Tajuddin and his Ar-Raudhah stable out side of Kuala Lumpur hosted several rides and helped advance the sport.
Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin of Terengganu became involved in the sport, and when he became Tuanku (Malaysia?s King) the sport gained national support and became Malaysia?s fastest growing equestrian sport. (Sultan Mizan is the current King of Malaysia) Terengganu International Endurance Park was conceived and built and became one of the world?s premier endurance venues, patterned after Abu Dhabi and Dubai?s Endurance Villages. The government encouraged and supported more endurance venues in the various sultanates of Malaysia and then submitted a bid to FEI for the 2008 World Endurance Championship. The nation and the state of Terengganu were in full support of the effort. A massive effort to qualify riders (including Tuanku Mizan) was undertaken. Riders toured around the world riding, leasing and buying horses, and gaining qualifications.
Malaysia?s WEC test event, the Terengganu Sultan?s cup, was held in November 2007 and was a success--160 kilometers over the course at TIEP, over 60% completion with both local riders and invited International teams. FEI granted Malaysia the 2008 World Endurance Championship.
Endurance continued to grow in Malaysia, more venues, more races, more riders, more horses. The Sultans Cup has become the ultimate ride for most Malaysians, with the TIEP facility, a good track for Malaysia (mostly sand and dirt trails, mostly flat). Currently the Royal Terengganu Endurance Stable (the Kings stable) is setting their sites on the 2011 European Championship in France - at Florac. The stable currently has riders and horses in training in France They are taking FEI Endurance very seriously and continuing to learn from the best.
The Sutra Beach Resort where we stayed was on the ocean and a serenade of waves made for a good night?s sleep. The organizing committee supplied us with our personal driver and tour guide, so I took the opportunity for a tour of Terengganu. The marketplace included rows and rows and rows of batiks, spices, fruits, brasswork and souvenirs. It was so interesting to watch the artisans stamp the batik designs into the fabrics. The ?stamps? are engraved metal irons that are pressed into the fabrics--stamp after stamp after stamp. I only had enough time for this brief marketplace tour then back to the stables where Steph and I would meet our Royal Stables horses.
The venue stables are much like many International race sites with a screened in barn area with rows of stalls for each horse and one stall designated for saddles and tack. My horse was a 13 year old gelding named Junkett de la Rose, a gift to the Royal Stables from the Sheikh of Qatar. He was very quiet, calm and easy to ride. Perfect! Steph rode a mare named Ikbah.
The venue area also hosted a huge horse theme Carnival with carriage rides, local food booths, all night big screen movies, and full size plastic horses that were painted the colorful Malaysian patterns.There was a weaver demonstrating the art of the Songket (a handwoven, brocade fabric with intricate gold or silver threads.) Very rich in Malaysian history, the Songket was a symbol of Royalty and Nobility and today is the theme of the Sultans Cup.
When we needed to pack our race snacks we went to a 7-11 type of station to purchase crackers, yogurt, starbucks; all the stuff we usually pack in our crewbags back home. (We didn't know our chalet would be fully catered!)
The Welcome dinner was held at the Yacht Club. It was an extra-ordinary spectacle. The King, heads of State Departments, presidents of this and that company all walked in with the full piece band. It was a five star presentation with waiters bringing layers and layers of specialty foods. The entertainment was easily a Broadway show of local dancers, singers and the full band to play the National anthem. The big screen shadow puppet show was charming and entertaining. Wow!
Race Day AM:
The trot out was organized and smooth. All 68 horses started. The rider briefing reviewed the map and details of the trek. At the venue the crewing area is in under permanent tents with fans, spray misters, water tanks, shavings, hay and lights. The horses are pampered by riders? personal RTES grooms. Directly adjacent is the USA chalet- a fully equipped condo with a comfortable sofa, chairs, kitchen, dining area, bedroom and two bathrooms. Catered meals were provided throughout the entire race, from evening thru breakfast, with lots of hot coffee. Sponsors were as numerous as a Kentucky Derby or Nascar race including staff BMW X5, sedans and Land Rovers as well as motorcycles.
The police force controlled traffic all night on the streets and fully lighted check points and water stops. The race program was a thick book with rider photos and profiles, the lists of Organizational committees (long lists), veterinary committees and recognitions. Full size billboards announced the Sultans Cup with a photo of the King riding his horse. I couldn?t wait for the 5:30 pm start.
Saddled, with braided manes and shiny coats, the RTES team of horses paraded to the start gate. They knew it was ?Flag Off?. It was a thunderous start with the local Malaysian spectators lining the trek for a mile to cheer for Tuanku Mizan. Malaysians love their King and are intrigued with horses. The King has done so much for the promotion of the sport, not only in Malaysia but its development throughout Asia. He is an outstanding equestrian and loves and cares for his horses. Steph and I and our Australian friends decided to start 5 minutes after the front running speed. Good plan, as our horses were relaxed at our pace (to finish is to win). Water stops were every 5K with water bottles for riders and tanks filled with water and wet hay for horses, as well as cheers from the crowd of spectators. We rode along the beach with gorgeous scenery and refreshing ocean breezes. I wished it would be daylight longer. The weather was perfect, the tack fit perfect, our horses were perfect.
Just into the crew area we were met by our grooms and a mass of RTES blue shirts to help our horses cool and move thru the vet check. There were fans above the water tanks and the recoveries were quick. The state of the art timing systems kept us on schedule (There was a countdown display: within 5 minutes of leaving the vet check the display was coded yellow with the seconds counting down, red coding with longer than 5 minutes and Green for GO). The veterinarians were some of the best in the world. The trot out lanes were all white rail fencing.
Junkett al la Rose was all A?s in the metabolic parameters, but the trot out was a grade 1. Dr. Brian Sheahan (Austrailia) asked ?Bev, do want to see that trot out again or would you like the vets to vote?? Oh, no need for another trot, we retired after Loop 1. Disappointed, yes, as Steph and I planned to ride our pace all night for completion. Junkett went back to the RTES stable after the RTES veterinarian did a detailed exam. No heat, no swelling, no tenderness, no finish. Whatever, it was mild and he was 100% sound the next morning.
Steph?s groom and crew took care of Ikbah, so Steph had time to relax in the chalet with a cup of hot coffee and sink into the caressing chair...ahhh.. RTES had a crew area manager who kept track of our times and had horses saddled and ready. Steph would go out on the 30K 2nd loop by herself and it was very dark. Clouds shielded the moon and the forest canopy would block the rest. She would glide through the night with the sweet smells of the forest, sand, ocean and wonder what animal was making noises above her head. Oh My.....
Each rider was equipped with a GPS tracker so the race management could follow the entire movement of the race filed. We knew when Steph was near the venue and we were ready for her. Her mare recovered fast, but at the trot out she was slightly lame. Alas, no Sultans Cup belt buckle for Steph. But the energy and excitement of the race was still with us, so we went out to help and mingle with all our friends. We met Ramlan at the King?s special crew area. The King was just out on Loop 3 and we went out to cheer for him. Ramlan drove a BMW X5 sponsor car. Nice. Of course we first saw the ?posting? headlamp of the King as he came into view with his wonderful gelding Cocoa, followed by special crews and security. CheMatDin, the RTES General Manager, was attentive to the Kings and horses? every need. This team looked great! (The King would eventually be eliminated after Loop 4). It was now 2:00 am and with our adrenaline drained Steph and I faded back to the Sutra Beach Resort.
The rain held off until 9:00am, so perfect race weather. The last riders finished at 8:30am. It was my friends from Singapore--Peter Tan and his Presco Endurance Team. Good Job! The awards ceremony was beautifully staged and catered. Congratulations were given to the winner Wan MS Norhafizi from the Tenaku Mahkota Kelantan Endurance Team, as well as to the Best Conditioned Songket blanket awarded to Idais Tobiha of the Terengganu Endurance Team, who was proudly lead into the ceremony tent. It was an impressive performance! Their trophy was a beautiful designed glass stirrup. This year?s Sultans Cup had a 55% completion rate, better than the FEI world average. Bravo Malaysia!!!!
Our wonderful guides and driver Amin, Nazir and Samsudin from the Yayasan Foundation, planned an afternoon of Batik shopping. The Nozi Batek was away from the tourist bus route and in the countryside. There was a studio where an artist was designing on the Batik silks. The store sold gorgeous batiks at a fraction of the town shopping. We were thrilled with our bargain purchases.
The day also included a private tour of the Terengganu State Museum. It offered elaborate displays of historical, cultural and modern exhibits. Today was filled with school children who were fascinated with the current exhibit- snakes and other poisonous creatures. I had to opportunity to hold the 8ft King Cobra. He didn't try to ?look me in the eye? or squeeze me, but I didn't give him a chance and returned him to the master. I understand that at last year?s Sultans Cup a horse spooked at a King Cobra in the trail.. Oh my again...
How could this magical trip to Malaysia end? What a magnificent, beautiful and special country. The Malaysians are so generous, kind and sincere and every face offers to share a smile. Their hospitality and friendliness surround every aspect of their lives. The Sultans Cup is an impressive World caliber event- one of the best that I have ever attended. Next year is already in the planning and scheduled for October 2011.
Terima Kasih (Thank you) Malaysia and Royal Terengganu Endurance Stables and King Mizan.