Chapter 1 - This Week's Adventure; or, Saamson Goes to Egypt
Howdy ya'll -
Saamson isn't really going to Egypt; he's on his way to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), just down the block so to speak. But let me explain:
In case you don't know the story so far, Marcia Smith and horse Saamson were invited to race in the UAE - in the desert outside Abu Dhabi (southeast of Saudi Arabia, northwest of Oman, across the Persian Gulf from Iran). The race is on Feb 7, called the Presidents Cup - 100 miles, international field, prize money & everything. Marcia, Saamson & I are going as guests of Al Wathba Stables.
I will try corresponding somewhat regularly, but no guarantees. There are a lot of folks on this list to receive the story - if you don't wanna be on the list, let me know & I'll take you off no worries. I will try to post every couple or few days, enough to be interesting but not boring I hope.
That all said, here's the story so far: we have been cooking this deal for several months. Various events, minor and major, almost put the kibosh on the plan several times, pretty typical for anything involving travel and/or horses. A few weeks ago this all started looking pretty real, with actual plans being made. The logistics are like this: three US rider/horse teams, including Marcia & Saam, Heather Bergantz & Red, Hal Hall & Bogus are going. The UAE is keen to raise the level of endurance competition, and take it upon themselves to host several pretty high-profile races during their racing season (about Dec to Mar or Apr). The host stable invites a few hot shoe rider-horse teams from various international countries, and put on the race. In case you don't know the horses & riders going in our group, suffice to say they are up to racing at this level.
The horses were papered, passported, tested, shod, trained & generally made ready over the past few weeks. In parallel, lots of fax, cell phone & email time. Lots of paperwork & details, kinda interesting actually. In general, the horses are as ready as can be for depths of winter. They all have hair like a mastodon in the ice age, we will be breaking out the clippers for a body clip as soon as we hit the desert over there (its been high of 80, low 60 - sounds like Palm Springs!). They are as fit as we could do given a few weeks notice, not to mention mud & rain.
We delivered the small herd to UC Davis for quarantine on Saturday night. The ponies were bummed, more poking and then confinement to a small concrete room for the night. Sun AM, early and DARN cold, the three smallish horses and about three tons of gear were loaded on an enormous semi for the trip to San Francisco airport. Then, they got loaded into a cargo pallet that was supposed to look like a horse trailer from an equine perspective. They were not fooled, but got in anyway. Up & into the 747.
Marcia & Heather are traveling with the horses, up in the jump seat area behind the pilots. They will be passing out snacks to the horses, who are likely to be as happy as 2 yr olds who get to fly for 20 hours or so. The schedule is, 10 or 11 hours to Luxembourg, about 10 hours in Luxembourg in the snow, then back on the next plane to Abu Dhabi for another 8 hours or so. If all goes well, they arrive on Tuesday.
The rest of the riders, crew & family are going over in waves - Hal Hall today, me on Wed, Ann Hall & Skip Lightfoot in a week or so. I'll let ya'll know if they made it OK with no or few dramas, then hopefully send the next message with sand between my toes.
Chapter 2 - Travel to Exotic Places on Your Own 747!
Next installment of the travel adventure - Marcia called from the UAE, she and the horses arrived safe and fairly sound, if you don't count jet lag (people) and minor dehydration (horses). The report includes the weather: hot during the day. The stable accommodations: the Al Wathba quarantine facility - an entire barn, paddock & fenced area with only the North Calif. horses in residence. The hotel: Mafraq Hotel, 20 minutes from the stable, nice. The phone connection: stunning. Talking to the Middle East is more clear than talking to Sacramento - aren't fiber optics great.
Apparently the coolest part of the trip (other than the weather during the layover in Luxembourg) was the airplane ride. Other than Heather & Marcia & the pilot & co-pilot, there was no one else on the plane. They basically had the run of a 747-400 long distance cargo plane, up & down the stairs to see the horses, free snacks in the galley, first class-style seats for the gals. Apparently the best part was getting invited up into the cockpit to see the northern lights while flying over the Arctic. Not the usual flight to Europe!
That’s all for now - will send more from over there.
Chapter 3 - Life in the Desert, Part 1
Sorry about the delay, I have been struggling with email connections over here. Hope this works, let me know if you don't receive the message (ha ha).
I made it to Abu Dhabi, and get to report in person. It is a long way from there to here, via all sorts of cold places like Minneapolis and Amsterdam. It is actually cool here at night, maybe 60 or a bit below, and with a desert breeze a sweatshirt is a useful piece of equipment. Low 70's days, really nice if the wind is not blowing.
OK, about the venue: The American riders are domiciled in the Mafraq Hotel, NICE place, about 20 min from downtown Abu Dhabi and 20 min from the stable. All sorts of folks stay there, lots of European types on holiday, some Middle Eastern or Indian business types as well. We have some of the stable cars for getting around, so we are pretty independent. The drive out to the stable can be pretty exciting, follow the main road to the "Massaref Truck Road", REALLY BIG trucks as far as the eye can see in both directions on a wide two-lane road. You either putt along behind the trucks, or haul ass right down the middle of the road between the lines of trucks, until you meet someone hauling ass the other way, then you get to play chicken. Guess which approach we take.
Take the Al Wathba Palace/prison/camel racetrack exit off the truck road - all sorts of stuff out here. The AL Wathba endurance complex is amazing - imagine a major throughbred training complex in Kentucky, substitute sand for grass & palm trees for everything else, and that is about it. Box stalls for 160 horses, dozens of turnouts, 4 kM training track with grandstand, COMPLETE vet hospital, helicopter pad, dozens on dozens of folks working here, immaculate landscaping & very well tended horses.
We are actually down the hill at the quarantine stable, where all the foreign horses stay - makes both importing & exporting much more straightforward. The quarantine area is maybe 10 acres surrounded by a 12 foot chain link fence, with four 1-acre fenced enclosures within (a small enclosure per country). We are the only ones there yet, although there are supposed to be some European horses coming in for the race. In our 1 acre area is an 8 stall tent barn, really nice portable barn w/ electric & water & a groom in attendance 24 hours (Nor in the days, Abdul Ghanni at night). The horses think this is a swell vacation: lots of attention & carrots, in at night, out in the sand during the day, not too much work (yet). And stuff to look at: Camels.
The camel racetrack is 3 or 4 miles down the road, and there are camel camps all over the place. These are racing camels - imagine the body of a greyhound only 6 feet chest to rump, with legs about two meters long. Seriously. These ain't you garden variety local zoo critters, these things look athletic. They are apparently pretty fast; they can whip the horses in the races of over a few miles. wild trot, fast, bouncy, monstrous knees & hocks & loooooong neck bouncing & big lips flapping. Looks uncomfortable as hell to ride, but they can cook along at 20 miles an hour. Apparently a top racing camel will fetch upwards of $30 million. Anyway, there are all sorts of camel camps, some as plush as our facility some just a fence & tent, everyone rides back & forth miles & miles to the track & to camp & off in the desert on training rides. Our horses just stare & stare at 'em.
Other activities & adventures: we have been to Abu Dhabi a couple of times - really nice city, very modern. Went to the bazaar last night, bought some odds & ends. Gold jewelry is really cheap, there must be 500 shops in one area all competing. We have seen portions of the race course, not all of it yet. Tonight we are going to the President's Cup, a major flat-track race in town. They race both thorobreds & Arabians here, mostly turf races. We are going over to Dubai next week, once to see the area and once for a ride.
OK, well I'll try to be more consistent with the messages. If you didn't get one of the first two let me know & I'll send it. Let me know if you want to come off the list.
Chapter 4 - Life in the Desert, Part 2 - The Color of Sand
In general it is pretty easy to imagine what a desert looks like, but the desert here is not quite what I expected. As someone pointed out, it is all "camel colored". Not much vegetation - strike that, no vegetation unless someone planted it and waters it. Also, pretty flat - a few low ridges, but nothing more, no mountains in the distance.
We have been out on the race course a couple of times. If you know endurance riding in the States, you know that variety is the spice. Endurance race directors generally try to make courses interesting, challenging, colorful, unusual, - over the mountain, across the stream & through the woods, whatever. The course here is more of a race track. The start and finish corridor are a straight line, between two fences, for 4 km (2 ½ miles). Most of the rest of the course involves graded roads in big loops, generally flat & flatter. Imagine a dirt road across a salt flat, smooth & wide enough to drive three cars abreast at 60 mph. Not much sand on the course - the underlying ground is hard (like sandstone), or old salt flat so it is pretty solid. Lots of sand dunes, but they keep the dunes off the track with road graders and D8 tractors. The race will be five loops mostly starting and finishing the same way, so the riders get to go out & back on that long straightaway between 6 and 8 times.
The other unusual feature here is the non-rider participation. In the States, when crewing for a ride you see your horse start, see them come & go from the three or four checkpoints along the way, see them finish. Here, you send them off at the start, dash over to your land cruiser (land rover, humvee, whatever) then give chase off across the desert to follow the race. The only rule is you are not supposed to drive directly on the course or interfere with other riders, otherwise you can pass water to the riders, yell encouragement, etc. etc. - very participatory. Also can be hectic from what I understand - there was a ride here last week, apparently the lead few riders each had an entourage of 20 to 25 cars. No racing in obscurity here.
The 'endurance village' that serves as the start/finish is quite a complex - maybe ten acres fenced. The riders enter through one of half a dozen lanes past a timing booth, move ahead to another booth where pulses are read, then proceed to the vetting area with fifteen 40 yard long trot out lanes on rubber mats. Crewing & horse rest is under big permanent shed roofs (some of the regular riders have changing rooms w/ showers in their crew area). Big catering tent, big press tent, big awards tent, bunch of other big tents. All very spiffy, not like most local US races (generally an open field).
Later this week we are going to Dubai (next Emirate over) to ride in a 50 mile qualifying race. Marcia, Heather & Hal will ride three of the young Al Wathba Stables horses. All the horses here have to complete four "qualifying" rides of gradually increasing distances, at prescribed speed, before they can step up to an "open" race. This will give us a chance to sort out logistics before the big race - should be fun. A different group of horses is heading off to Quatar (different country about 600 miles up the coast). Since the Al Wathba stable is owned by the government (= royal family) they have access to a very large Russian-made Tupolov cargo plane - ex-military, big ramp drops down in the back & you drive your truck on. They are flying up to Quatar, three horses, half a dozen trucks etc. for a 100 km (62 mile) ride.
OK, gotta go, lots to do - more later