Chapter 5 - When the Wind Blows, it Gets Really Dusty
We spent most of the last couple of days over in Dubai, participating in a qualifying race that was held in conjunction with an Open (FEI sanctioned) race. The qualifier was 80 Km (50 miles) for young or new-to-endurance horses, the Open was 120 Km. The Dubai endurance village is pretty much out in the desert, about 30 minutes off the highway @ 80 mph. This was the venue for the World Championship ride from 1998.
The weather had been pretty nice around here the past few days, perhaps a bit of wind in the afternoons. Unfortunately the wind decided to get a bit more serious for Wed and Thurs, the day of the race. It is generally flat and sandy ‘round here, so add a steady 20 to 25 mph breeze and the dust blows up in a hurry. Like, smallish sand dunes in the roads, visibility half a mile or less at ground level, sand in every conceivable location and orifice. Character building.
Jen was kind enough to offer three well-prepared horses in need of a qualifying ride for Marcia, Heather & Hal to ride, for some first-hand experience at what the President’s Cup race in a week is going to be like. This qualifying ride mandated a pace between 10 and 16 Km/hr (a steady, medium-speed 6 to 10 mph). Faster or slower than that and they pull you from the ride – so it is not technically a race, and the US riders only needed to track along at a steady rate. Since all of the riders can be followed by a pace car, hitting the target pace is pretty simple.
The pace car business is a hoot. Basically, load up your Land Cruiser with an ice chest and what not, and go anywhere as long as it does not interfere with the horses on the course. Often, the horses are on the firm ground, which means you have to bash over the soft dunes to follow. I managed to get the land cruiser buried to the hubs once, fortunately someone yanked us out. In any event, crewing is very much a participation sport here.
A valuable and character-building experience for the US riders – half-way through the day the wind and dust were getting hectic. The course was a series of big squares, so sooner or later you got to ride straight into it.
Our three horses & riders came through fine, much to Jen’s relief (it looks pretty stressful – six weeks training for three horses, coordinating logistics of a driver and three Sri Lankan grooms, making sure all the right supplies & gear got loaded & hauled & set-up, having the horses shipped over, and hand-holding the tourista Americans – the normal logistics of endurance riding complicated ten-fold). Looks like Jen has some very nice prospects for the next couple of years.
A couple of other adventures – remember the camel race track? We drove on in a couple of mornings ago during training. The track looks like a typical horse racing track, only longer - there are two race courses, 5 and 10 miles (!) long. There is a road parallel to the track just inside the loop, so we invited ourselves in and followed a few sets of camels around. The protocol was: lead your string of camels (two to seven in a bunch) to the track at a walk, trot around about half way to warm up, then send ‘em off in ones or twos at FULL TILT with a jockey back to the start line. The jockeys are kids – look to be maybe 7 to 10 years old, little guys. No way they can control or slow these things – we followed a pair in the car, they were hitting 25 mph for three miles straight and looked like they were cruising! When they get to the end of their run, a guy (camel groom?) jumped out of the chase car and sprinted like mad for a short bit, grabbed the flying camel by the lead line as he blazed by & hung on like crazy till the beast slowed down & they could retrieve the jockey kid. I don’t know what looked like more fun – riding or catching.
Today we stopped by the Sheik’s falcon stable. About 15 birds, various varieties, very well tended – at least three handlers and a vet in attendance. If all goes well, tomorrow we will meet the handlers on the hill in front of the stable, they will be exercising (flying) some of the birds.
Lots to do around here – more later. Cheers, TJ
Chapter 6 – We could get used to this
We are all getting pretty complacent, other than getting a bit tired of the same fare in the hotel restaurant this is a pretty easy gig. The endless blowing dust riddled wind finally quit, and today was stunning. Everyone’s attitude improved, certainly the horses were happier.
Last night we went up to the top of the tallest hill around & met up with the falcon handlers. Off in the distance (about two miles away, line of sight, and maybe 800 feet lower) was a land cruiser just visible. The handler on top of the hill gave a sign on the radio, and the other handler started swinging a lure that looked like the better part of a dead chicken. In about two minutes the falcon came at the lure – approached from below, hugging the side of the hill, an upward strike. The handler with the lure then proceeded to complete what reminded me of a “bullfight” type routine - offering the lure only to snatch it away just before the diving bird struck. They flew about a dozen birds, each was unique in style, stamina, and flair. A German peregrine and some sort of white Russian (Siberian) falcon were the high points, strong, very fast and very creative with their strikes – vertical dive bombs over the side of the hill, low-altitude strafing JUST skimming the flat ground, upwards strikes from out of sight over the lip of the hill. When the birds were starting to slow, the lure was left still on the ground and the bird pounced. The second handler would swoop up the falcon and offer a fresh killed dove from a cooler – which was rapidly devoured as the next falcon exercised.
8 or ten European riders & horses arrived a day ago into the next quarantine barn over – we have had no contact with them (the quarantine rules a pretty strict, we are to keep 100 yds distance between the horses at all times, and are absolutely not supposed to enter their barn). Don’t know where they are staying, so may not get to see them until the race. We don’t yet know who-all from around the Gulf is in the race – many riders from most of the major and minor stables in the UAE, plus some riders from Bahrain, Saudi, Quatar, Egypt and a few others.
The course is set, pretty much what we were expecting – five loops of 37, 37, 36, 32, 18 Km with one 30 and three 40 minute holds, criteria 64, all checks back at camp (for you non-endurance riders, five loops totaling 100 miles, with standard holds and vet criteria). We will scout the vet area in a couple of days when it is all set up. As previously reported, this course is mostly flat, with a few rollers and some sand as the only bits to slow anyone down.
We got a ride on a camel this afternoon, borrowed a few ex-racing camels from a local Sheik’s stable for a couple of laps around the block. The camels were ‘saddled’ in the local camel-racing style, just a blanket rolled up and strapped on behind the hump. You actually straddle the animals hips, behind the hump, and tuck your knees up jockey-style. The little kids and locals who ride sure make it seem easy and comfortable. The get-on is pretty interesting, the camel kneels and you mount up, then a big zig-zag motion upwards as those two-meter-long limbs unfurl. Quite a view from up there, your eyes are about 10 or 11 feet off the ground. Trotting is interesting, sort of a side to side motion and not hard to sit. We didn’t work up to a gallop, just as well. They certainly don’t smell anything like horses – Marcia allowed that we ought to bring home a camel blanket for our dogs – I expect that the dogs would think we had visited with the aliens.
The race date is getting, down to three days, so we are starting to plan strategy & tactics. This will be fun. More later –
Chapter 7 - Odds & Ends from the Desert
There is a lot to keep track of. First, here is today’s press about the ride:
and a couple of articles on http://www.khaleejtimes.co.ae/sports.htm
A major recreation here is driving in the desert. EVERYONE has a suv or pickup. Everyone drives like a bat out of hell. There is sand or sand dunes everywhere. Now, for sure you NEED to drive like a bat out of hell in the sand dunes – momentum is everything, and getting stuck is a serious drag (involving lots of digging by hand, deflating the tires to almost flat, and stuffing whatever you can find under the tires. That is, unless you can get a tow from someone with a bigger truck). Still, there is a competitive aspect to going anywhere. Skip & Jeremy & I have embraced this approach wholeheartedly.
In an effort to keep the driving speeds somewhat under control, all of the cars (including our thrashed Toyota corolla rentals) issue this quiet persistent beeping when you drive above 120 Km/hr. Needless to say, if it isn’t beeping we go faster.
The horses are not planning on coming home. In addition to good food, round-the-clock care, more food, warm weather and lots of food, they have been getting massage (from the equine massage specialist) and chiropractic adjustment. Too much like equine Cub Med.
Last night Marcia & I drove into Dubai city to check it out (about 150 Km away up the coast). The gold souq is amazing – a shopping area with shop after shop after shop of gold jewelry – dazzling. We spent an hour or so down by the docks, looking at the “dhow wharfage”. Dhows are wooden boats, maybe 50 to 100 feet long, look like really big rowboats. They ply the trade routes all over the Persian Gulf, carrying just about everything. The wharf are is mayhem (and we were there at 8 PM) – the dhows are parallel-parked for about 4 miles of frontage, and they are generally 4 to six abreast. There are piles and piles and piles of goods, boxes, equipment, stuff tarped over all along the wharf area. Apparently most stuff is loaded on and off by hand, and across three other boats to get to the dhow tied farthest from the wharf. This must be quite a scene on a busy day.
The course is set, we are off to drive it and see the whole thing in sequence. This PM we start setting up crew bays, etc. Looks like the field for the race will be about 60 horses, including some of the top local riders. Things may get hectic for a couple of days, so I may not post anything till after the race on Thurs. You can check the links above, the local papers will at least have the headlines if not full results. Ciao - Tj
Chapter 8 - Race Report from the UAE
Friday morning, the day after the ride. Probably everyone has hit the “Gulf News” or “Khaleej Times” web sites and know that all the Californian riders finished, Heather in 11th, Marcia 14th & Hal 15th. I’ll try to provide some more detail about the past two days.
Wednesday was set-up day. Some of the major stables bring quite a show on the road – a typical set-up is two to three large tents (20 x 40 feet is pretty typical size), a generator, maybe a motorhome or two or a portable building (like a half of a mobile home). Rugs on the floor of the tent, tables & chairs, etc. etc. This is all in addition to what comes for the horses, usually a full pick-up load per horse.
Pre-ride check-in is what you expect at a major ride, lots of officials & clipboards milling around, bits of official paper, everyone watching the horses at the vet inspection and nodding knowingly. The minimum weight that the horses must carry is 75 kilos (about 165 pounds). That is pretty easy for Hal, who weighs about 150 all by himself, plus saddle & tack. Marcia is the smallest US rider; as a result her saddle is full of lead. The saddle weighs about 45 pounds (much to the chagrin of Al Wathba’s Sri Lankan grooms who have been helping us out – they are all ex-jockeys, not real big guys, and used to racing saddles that weigh about 3 pounds). The horses all looked real good at vet-in, and the riders were issued numbered vests to wear during the ride – number on the back, big photo image of HH Sheik Zayed on the front. Not like the polo shirt we usually ride in.
Pre-race set up in the crewing area is quite an effort. Everything is industrial strength. First you set up a portable corral for each horse, complete with shavings and water buckets. Ice in a cooler the size of a coffin for a football lineman. Cases of water – probably 40 cases of 24 bottles of 1.5 liter water bottles. Bales of hay, bags of grain, three trucks, two drivers, five grooms, tack trunks etc. etc. etc. We had access to whatever we needed from Al Wathba stables resources.
As an aside, I did a match race one-on-one against one of Jen Nice’s horses, Al Barraq, on the day before the ride. This idea was cooked up by me and Jen’s publisher (of Endurance World magazine), and sponsored by Sheik Mansoor. I ran, Jen rode 80 Km of the President’s Cup route. The horse had two vet holds totaling 60 minutes, I ran straight through. We finished in 5 hrs 45 minutes – the final straight-away to the finish line is 4 Km in a straight line – I was at the 2 Km mark when Jen hit the top of the 4 Km at a dead gallop, I finished ahead by about 50 meters. Quite a finish for the cameras. We made the front page of the local paper, and got interviewed by the local BBC news radio. There must be a deficit of “local color” stories hereabouts.
Race day, the race start time was 6:30. Wake up call at 4, breakfast at 4:15, at the stable by 5. Pretty calm around the start, about 60 horses in the starting field and plenty of room for milling around. A pretty mellow start just before the sun rose.
Endurance racing in the UAE is certainly a participant event. Anyone with a vehicle can follow the horses along the race course, although 4 wheel drive is a plus in the sand and the taste in cars runs to Land Cruisers, BMW’s and the occasional Hummer. As a result, there were probably at least 250 vehicles and a couple of thousand people following the race along. And not just putting along behind, it is much more fun to blast ahead of the riders or zoom back down the course to see how another horse was doing. At times it was quite a traffic jam - although I didn’t see any wrecks, at least a couple of guys flew out of the back of a moving truck. At one point we came over the top of a sandy hill and spotted something like 20 vehicles stuck in the sand, with a Hummer and an UAE army all-terrain vehicle pulling crews out. It looked like a check point at the Baja 1000 off-road race. Quite a spectacle, and the riders were certainly not bored.
The course was five loops, 37, 37, 36, 32 and 18 Km. Marcia and Heather made it around the first loop in about 2:05, about 8 min behind the lead riders, with Hal a few minutes back of that. As expected, the first vet check was pandemonium & chaos (if you haven’t seen the first vet check at an international endurance race, imagine Christmas shopping at a very crowed mall a day before Christmas, with everyone full of caffeine, in a hurry and heading for the same sale rack, only with spectators and 60 really excited and sweaty endurance horses dancing about). Anyway, we all got through OK.
The second loop was long and flat, and started to spread out the field. Hal Hall’s crew vehicle was one of the rigs parked in the sand up to the door frame, so there were some anxious moments until they got towed out and caught up to Hal. Marcia & Heather came around in about 2:07 or so, with Hal maybe ten minutes back.
The vet holds were short (30 minutes, or 40 minutes with a re-present to the vet), particularly given the amount of time and scrutiny the vets took with each horse. 30 minutes goes by too fast, even with 4 or 5 of us dashing around tending to each horse and rider we could still use an extra 30 minutes per check.
Race day was the hottest, stillest day we have had here. Usually the mornings are still, then the wind picks up by 10:30 AM and some days blows pretty hard. On the day of the race there was only a slight intermittent breeze all day. So, when the riders headed out on loop three at about mid-day, it was feeling a lot more like summer in the desert than winter in Northern California. Plus, the third and fourth loops had more sand and rolling hills than earlier.
All of the horses had some low points on the third loop. Hot, hiking through sand, traveling alone, they were sure this was some sort of cruel and unusual punishment for enjoying the resort life the past couple of weeks. The riders were getting pretty grumpy too (at least Marcia was). Jen & I were following Marcia in a pickup – we cranked up our air conditioner and tried to be cheery, and pour cold water on the horse every mile or so (That is another fun participant activity – drive along the course with your horse & rider in a pickup, with a cooler and ten cases of spring water in the back. Jump out every mile or so, hand a 1.5 liter water bottle to your rider as they trot or gallop by, jump back in the truck, dash ahead and repeat). Jen & I followed Marcia in one truck, Jeremy and Skip chose to ride in the back of another truck piloted by Basheer to tend to Heather, and Ann & the kids rode in Jen’s Land Cruiser with Ruwn and Jamad to chase Hal.
The forth loop included what there was for hills, some short steep rollers for about 6 miles in the middle of the loop. All our US horses did pretty well in the hills – finally something to break up the flat! All of the US riders had been moving up in the placings through the day, as many of the early front runners retired for various reasons. Marcia’s horse Saamson lost a shoe on this loop, fortunately we had an ‘Easyboot’ in the truck with us. Al Wathba’s farrier was able to fashion a new shoe in less than ten minutes when we were back in the vet check, but the delay on the trail cost some time.
The lead horses were just flying. Clearly there is a huge ‘home track’ advantage for the local horses – they certainly know the course, they are adapted to the heat, and train regularly at the high speeds that this type of course allows. The lead horses were heading out on their last lap when we were coming in from the forth – there was a cavalcade of at least 100 vehicles following the front-running pack of four horses. I ran interference for Marcia with the truck, as we swam upstream against the horde. The first riders were returning when Heather was heading out on her last lap, and she had to negotiate the same obstacles. Fortunately there were no head-on horse and vehicle encounters. The first four horses finished in 8:24 to 8:29 riding time – pretty amazing.
All our US horses slowed quite a bit in the last loop, particularly after dark at 6:30 PM as the deep sand stretches were hard to spot, even with a chase vehicle lighting the way with high-beams. The horses all looked fine at the finish, and again early this morning when we turned them out – particularly Saamson, who was pretty fresh – he had obviously been sandbagging during the race. The riders were pleased with their finishes, given the conditions of the day. Particularly Heather and Marcia had top-five or six type performances in mind, but we were all surprised by the heat. In short – pretty hard to take mid-winter horses and race as competitively as possible in a “summertime” race.
Today everyone is feeling happy, tired, and sunburned – pretty typical post race conditions. Personally I am going to have a beer. Thanks for reading - TJ
Chapter 9 - Postscript from the UAE
Four days after the race, and all of the aches & pains have pretty much subsided. The riders were surprisingly thrashed after the ride, something to do with riding in pretty much the same position all day rather than changing about as you would over a more hilly course – I suspect they were all a bit dehydrated as well.
Everyone has shipped out except Skip & I, we are traveling with the horses leaving tomorrow AM. We spent a couple of hours this AM spraying everything – saddles, pads, wraps, tack, etc. etc. with a disinfectant, packing & sealing in shipping trunks under the watchful eye of a couple of international vets. Our total so far is about 300 kilograms, 650+ pounds. Tomorrow the horses load at 8:30 AM after a wash-down with a light acid instructions. Marcia, Heather & Ann Hall provided Skip & I with about 6 pages of instructions for everything imaginable. We fly to Luxembourg, layover there for 24 hrs, then on the Los Angeles. If all goes smoothly at the quarantine barn in LA, the horses could be home as early as Saturday afternoon. If they knew they were leaving I am sure they would try to escape – they are particularly enjoying laying about in the warm sand all day.
Marcia made it all the way home as of Sunday night – sounds like everything was smooth to San Francisco & through Customs, until she went to board the 20 seat, propeller driven shuttle flight for the 45 minute flight to Sacramento, whereupon it sounds like she was durn near strip searched. That’s what you get when you travel via a one-way ticket from the middle east.
Skip & I & Grace Ramsey went shopping in Sharjah last night – we bought stuff, LOTS of stuff. Watching Skip & Grace double-team-barter the sales guys was too much fun. I bought stuff I didn’t need just for the show. The sales guys were left in tears, not of joy. OK, gotta go, last chance for a beer & some sunshine before I fly back to winter.