Lexington, Ky., September 26, 2010 — “It’s absolute mayhem,” a startled woman with a British accent said, moments after chaos broke out at the finish line of the endurance world championship.
My thoughts exactly. I was astounded to see I actually got a photo of the winner, reigning world champion Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton of Spain, crossing the line as she was swarmed by what seemed like dozens of people who didn’t care that they were ruining my shot.
I barely had time to take a breath before Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the runner-up (who probably would prefer to be identified as the Emir of Dubai) arrived 55 seconds behind her on Ciel Oriental. This time I didn’t get my shot, as a tsunami of supporters rolled in to meet him and I figuratively went under the wave. There just weren’t any barriers to hold back enthusiastic crew members and the public. I suggested they should have had ropes up; one official laughed when I told him that and said it never would have worked–it would have taken a fence to stop this stampede.
The best angle about Maria’s win was the fact that just seven weeks ago, she gave birth to a little girl, Maria Punti-Alvarez. Mother Maria is a superwoman with a superhorse. I thought it was poetic justice, remembering the endurance race at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain, eight years ago, when the Sheikh’s son, Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, won. No man had ever earned the championship since it began in 1986, and one of the young Sheikh’s associates made much (too much, in my view) of the fact that one had finally triumphed. So backatcha.
Maria didn’t even look winded as she wrapped herself in the red and yellow flag of her homeland . If I had started a 100-mile race at 7:30 a.m. and finished at 6:25:44 p.m., you’d be wrapping me in a body bag.
But for her it was business as usual.
She was understandably using superlatives about Nobby.
“For me, he is the best horse in the world,” she said, but as he carried her to the world championship, everyone should have the same opinion. He did the 100 in seven hours, 35 minutes and 44 seconds, which doesn’t count the time spent at the vet gates.
At the last world championships in the jungles of Malaysia, which didn’t sound very hospitable to me, Maria said she had an easier time than she did today. Huh? She was cantering across the bluegrass, made for horses. But in Malaysia she was (understandably, perhaps) all alone. Here, there were horses challenging constantly, and she was always looking over her shoulder.
When she got pregnant there were those who believed defending her title was an impossible dream for her.
Maria, however, was determined to try.
“I thought I could do it, but everybody kept telling me it was impossible. I feel normal, really well. I feel like it never happened, having a baby.”
She stopped riding when she was five months pregnant, but her husband, Jaume Punti-Dachs, a United Arab Emirates trainer, kept riding Nobby to insure that he stayed in shape.
The United Arab Emirates won the team championship, but Sheikh Mohammed rode as an individual. The Sheikh, who was surrounded by TV cameras, was gracious in defeat.
Another of the Sheikh’s sons, Hamdan Mohd Al Maktoum, was third on Fazaa. Fourth to finish was an American, Heather Reynolds aboard Ssamiam. Heather was the last remaining member of the U.S. team; the other two had been spun along the way.
The U.S. dominated the sport for 12 years, but now is making a habit of falling short. So there was elation in the American ranks when Heather came in near the head of the field.
But joy became disappointment too fast as Ssamiam failed the final vet check; Heather said he was slightly off behind, though she hadn’t felt anything when she was riding.
“It’s the horse’s second 100 in his whole career; he’s 9 years old, he’s very inexperienced. He’s a total underdog horse,” said Heather. “I think it will be a very exciting future with more experience. The more you race, the more times you get disappointed eventually.”
Endurance is quite a scene. The area on the final loop where the horses came in for their last pit stop was wall-to-wall buckets, as crews stripped their tack in a heartbeat and got on with the serious business of cooling them down. Meanwhile, a giant screen recorded what was happening in the race, and horses passing behind it on their way to the vet gate made for a nearly surreal scene.
It’s been quite a day, and tomorrow promises to be the same, although we only have one discipline–grand prix dressage–on the agenda. Todd Flettrich and Katherine Bateson-Chandler are on deck for the U.S. We’ll have to wait until Tuesday to see Steffen Peters with Ravel and Edward Gal with Totillas, touted as a lock for the gold.
I’ll be telling you all about it tomorrow.
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