August 28, 2014 -- I didn't go to the WEG endurance championship for the competition; I went for the scenery. The drawing card was being able to photograph horses against the backdrop of Mont Saint-Michel, one of France's most famous landmarks. It's an eighth-century island fortress, a little more than a half-mile off the coast, topped by a monastery and an abbey. Below them are shops, restaurants and housing for the 44 residents.
Truth be told, the commercial area is basically a tourist trap, but the structure is so lovely that it is wonderful to look at, especially from a distance, where its statuesque beauty really can be appreciated.
Two loops of the endurance race were run on and near the beach, with Mont Saint-Michel as a backdrop. People turned out to see the horses canter across the sand, just a few feet from them. It was cool to look up on the dunes and see that someone brought several horses to watch.
The endurance mounts provided a contrast to the painstaking turnout of the dressage horses I've been writing about for the last three days. It ranges from scrappy to utilitarian, with tack to match. This is no pleasure ride; they're going 100 miles and doing it fast to get the medals. Unlike the dressage warmbloods, these horses are mostly Arabians or half-Arabs, without an extra ounce of fat on them. Some, frankly, look skinny.
To get to our vantagepoint, we drove through the quiet village of Sartilly, where the charming stone houses have stood sturdily through turbulent times. You know that Normandy was the scene of D-Day, when the Allies invaded France to turn back the Nazis (this year is the 70th anniversary of that battle.) These days, though, the area is peaceful, with flowers growing gracefully on well-tended properties ranging artfully along the narrow streets.
I'm staying in downtown Caen, a small city that is very different from the Sartilly area, which is the kind of quaint you probably always imagined France to be at its most picturesque. It was nice to see the charm of Normandy that gives it character, as we passed green pastures with contented grazing cows. The cheese here, need it be said, is magnificent.
But it was all business at the competition, where Sheik Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum was leagues ahead of everyone else aboard Yamamah. He galloped across the finish line in a slow canter, with no pursuers in sight, kissing the flag of the United Arab Emirates as people crowded along the victory lane cheered. It was clear what kind of race it would after the first loop, when the front-runners came in at a speed of 20 kilometers/hour.
Hamdan's total riding time on his Australian-bred mare was 8:08:28, with a blazing average speed of 19.678 km/hour. Twenty-one year old Marijke Visser and Laiza de Jalima earned the first ever endurance medal for the Netherlands. Bronze went to Abdulrahman Saad A.S.Al Sulaiteen of Qatar, riding Koheilan Kincso 37:16 minutes behind the winner. In fact, the medal ceremonies had to wait until he crossed the finish line, as he was far back of Hamdan and Marijke.
The attrition rate among the 165 starters was high, with just 38 finishers and only three teams finishing with the requisite three riders. Spain won, even without 2010 champion Maria Alvarez Ponton who had a fall with her horse and did not continue. France was second and Switzerland third.
The U.S. had only one rider complete, Jeremy Olson with Wallace Hill Shade.
Brian Sheahan, chair of the FEI endurance committee, felt that the low number of finishers proved the veterinary protocols in place to protect horse welfare were working.
"The course was extremely technical and extremely challenging," he said. “The weather made it even tougher and the vets were extremely careful to ensure that the horses were protected at all times, meaning that the number of finishers was unexpectedly low for a championship."
Hamdan greeted his proud father, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, at his magnificent tent, erected in a conspicuous spot near the center of the endurance facility. The senior sheik, a competitor himself, did not participate today. The ruler of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, spared no expense in his layout, which had video screens showing racing, numerous photos of endurance horses, a huge buffet and a series of private rooms.
Sadly, the competition was not without tragedy. Claudia Romero Chacon of Costa Rica was hospitalized for fractures and internal injuries after her horse, Dorado, struck a tree on the side of the trail 13.6 kilometers into the first loop of the course, suffering a head injury that killed him instantly.
Organizers took care to say the horse did not slip, but the footing was sloppy after days of rain, and one official who discussed it said it looked better than it actually was.
Also injured was Isha Judd of Uruguay, who fractured his right femur in a fall.
Tomorrow, I'm back at dressage for its finale, the Grand Prix Freestyle. Then I'll be focusing on eventing over the weekend.