by Nicki Freud
At short notice we had been given a horse to train for one specific race, a 119k 2* (which richard was to ride in) so we worked him for a fortnight but 48 hours before the race the neighbour's cows broke into our field and trashed the electric fencing which allowed our Alpha Horse (Dougal by name) to give the newcomer a thorough seeing to. Poor little gelding, he didn't have a square foot on his body without a bite mark and had also suffered a kick on one hock which then went septic. So we had to pull out of the race but the owner was really good about it and suggested we aimed for another one three weeks later down south. It was touch and go as to whether the cut would heal, he wasn't lame on it but it seemed like a demand too far to ask him to canter for 200k with a seeping wound. Endless poulticing alternated with borrowing ice from the local bar (we have no freezer section) and we knew it would be a close run thing.
The ride in the South was a two day 200k 3* called Montcuq. It was celebrating its 30th birthday but there'd been a highly charged political movement to sabotage it this year by a group of riders who were putting on a seemingly identical ride the following weekend. As well as riding, we were writing and photographing both rides and therefore being hosted by the respective organizers (who, needless to say, don't speak to each other). Diplomacy would rule.
On Thursday 26th Oct we loaded up two horses (the alpha male plus the horse he'd beaten up; needless to say they were best friends immediately because there were no mares around to make life complicated!) and headed 600k south for twelve days. We've never left the homestead for that long before and we'd been worrying about it a lot before leaving; a couple of days before we were due to leave, Hannibal (the pest of the herd) had discovered a route out of the field and had taken some of the other horses with him so two or three times a day there would be as many as five horses loose on the very small country lane (but nonetheless a road) galloping up and down, disappearing into sown fields etc. with me flapping around uselessly imagining the worst. But we reinforced the boundaries, put more electric fencing units up and drove away with fingers crossed. We'd left a 'friend' nominally in charge, who was meant to come round every other day to water the horses and feed the cats and hens. We are blessed with abundant grass and about fifty chestnut trees keep the horses well stuffed with marron so they didn't need anything extra in the food department.
A nine hour drive down south, stopping for an hour midway, and we arrived in the small medieval town of Montcuq. Although we were being put up for both weekends we couldn't expect either ride organizer to house us plus two horses for the intervening week so had booked room and paddock at a 'chambre d'hote' and we dropped Dougal there immediately then took the other one - lets call him Biggles - to the stables which were in the middle of the town.
It was almost impossible to get anywhere in a hurry as there was always someone to talk to - and often in English which was a treat as the ride has always been well supported by the Brits who come over just for 'the crack'. Pre ride vetting was on the Friday afternoon about five minutes after the wound on the right hock had decided to heal over. Phew; and at eight the following morning an aptly numbered 30 riders (19 french, 11 from other countries) set off for the first day's 100k. Four horses hit the front within metres - an Italian girl, an English woman, a Spanish man and a local Frenchman, very democratic and truly international. These four dominated the lead all day and arrived back in Montcuq within minutes of each other having averaged 17/18kph but ridden the last 22k stretch home at closer to 22kph.
Richard was about forty minutes off the pace and losing ground at the vetgates as we hadn?t really had the horse for long enough to work on his cardio vascular and a speedy presenter he wasn't! My concentration was focused on Richard and Biggles and I'd completely forgotten that I was meant to be taking photos. We grazed the horse in hand all Saturday afternoon, had his front shoes changed, planned tactics, talked endless post mortems of the first day and generally indulged in feeling part of the endurance community. Biggles's 70 yr old breeder/owner, who had driven ten hours from the coast of Brittany, who was delighted with how he'd performed, took us out to a wonderful supper during which we went to the stables and brought the horse back to the restaurant where he ate a couple of kilos of carrots in the dark.
Late that night, after our meal in the restaurant, there was a hysterical call from the owner of the Chambre d'hote telling us to take Dougal away as he was nothing but trouble in the escaping department and had eaten all her plums off the trees and she'd had enough. So we sneaked him into the ride stables (there was an empty one) and realised that as we couldn't take him back there that we were, in fact, homeless with two horses for the next four days. However, there was Sunday's ride to worry about first.
We were up and leading him round at 6.30, delighted that he'd eaten a huge breakfast and just tried a trot before the vetting. Hopping lame on the left hind so immediate withdrawal along with five others whose horses had also stiffened up overnight (we're not allowed to corral at either 2 or 3* rides in France, the horses have to sleep in stables which I'm not crazy about). The good news was that Richard could then take the photos and we could follow the ride from the front. There were 18 horses left to tackle another 100k loop with both vetgates away from the venue. The GB lady hadn't started day 2 so it was the French/Italian/Spanish triumverate who raced each other round. At the last vetgate Jordi (insert surname) had sped through the vetting and set off for home averaging 26kph and arriving (with broken stirrup leather!) twenty minutes ahead of the Jean Francois Lassalle who took a safe second place. Patrizia was next but eliminated on pulse so a French woman (Christine Lef) who came in over an hour later, took third place on the podium.
That evening the tired and hungry entourage were treated to a slide show of the last 30 years of Montcuq. Interesting to see how there was no sign of leg protection for the horses until 1986, there were several horses in the early years being ridden in double bridles, hard hats weren?t even popular, let alone compulsory, until well into the 1990s. The introduction of plastics and Lycra proved easier to spot than the effects of France's excellent long-term breeding programmes, state support for the sport or the arrival of the petro-dollar.
The homelessness factor sorted itself out and we found a truly wonderful place to stay thanks to someone we'd met down there. Glorious well-fenced paddock, comfortable bed for us and clippers to borrow. The sun shone, we bought ourselves picnic lunches and sat in restaurants in the evenings and it really felt like a holiday. We had the small dog with us and she became very used to sitting under tables eating unsuitable things.
On the Thursday we moved to the house of the organiser of the second ride. This second ride had been well hyped and had 140 horses competing for 15.000euros prize money and we had high hopes for the alpha horse. At his trot up on the Friday there were actually oohs and aaahs, I promise, that's the first time that's ever happened to us and it felt lovely that others were appreciating our horse!
Richard had decided to start in last position as Dougal is only 8 and we suspected the excitement of jumping off with so many horses would mean he'd hit the front and want to stay there; he might have drawn oohs from the crowd but it doesn't mean he's that biddable in a race - or he certainly wasn't in his last one where there were a mere 50 starters. By the first vet gate they'd moved up to 95th, mostly by going straight in to vet and thus overtaking about ten horses. I'm going to draw a veil over the misery of crewing when there are 200 other huge cars on tiny French lanes but it was a 'first come, first to park close to where the horses cross' situation and for those of us further back - buckets of water feel really heavy after carrying them for five minutes! Valerie Kanavy was at the other end of the field, consistently presenting first on a really impressive mare she'd brought to Europe to do the Portugal trial run.
By the second vetgate he'd moved up to 77th and vetted immediately with straight As. This just left the 20k home stretch which they did in just under the hour, again taking only two minutes to get into the vetgate which put them in 66th position. And this is where we say goodbye to Dougal as he was slightly lame left fore, possibly from when he'd fallen in a hole whilst preferring to go up a bank than to stand still whilst being crewed (tipping Richard off at the same time) but probably just one of the inexplicable lamenesses where there's no heat, no swelling and a completely sound horse 48 hours later. So an ignominious end to what had (up to this trip south) been a wonderfully successful season but you have to cope with disaster just the same and there were photos to take, people to talk to, wine to be drunk!
Sunday morning there were 93 horses left in the race and Valerie set off again in front. She'd been ten seconds off the leader overnight but the first 15 were all bunched so tightly together in terms of time that it could have been won by any of them. Speeds were down slightly because, though the first day had been relatively flat, the second day was a series of long long climbs. A 94k loop today, again with both vetgates away from home (I told you it was pretty identical to the previous weekend's ride!) and Valerie again vetted through first at both of them overtaking three or four horses, if only by seconds, each time.
After vg1, as the riders left for the second stretch of the day, they weren't allowed to mount but had to lead their horses through the most incredible old tow path, cut into the rock and nothing between them and a steep drop down to the river. I'll enclose a picture and strongly suspect it will become the iconic image of French endurance in the same way that Cougar Rock is to yours. The organizers had thoughtfully provided a leg-up man at the far end where the race was back on (they'd all had to walk single file down the towpath)
At the last vetgate Kanavy was still in the lead, she had overtaken the overnight leader and had a two second advantage over an 18yr old girl called Morgane Payen whose parents are both endurance vets and whose mother has been on the French team in the past. Within two strides Morgane had overtaken your countrywoman and set sail for home at an astonishing 30kph which included being crewed twice where the horse drank really well.
There were sadly few (maybe a hundred) people to see Payen cross the line as almost everyone was still out on course but the mare looked great and as if she could do it all over again. The next horses home were also ridden by women and, like Payen, both passed the final vetting which meant the podium had three females. We've covered at least ten of France's major rides this year and this is the first time we've seen this; it's more of a man's sport over here. Two men came in 4th and 5th and Valerie finished 6th having seemed to really enjoy the experience, as did Larry whose only complaint was that the scenery was so beautiful he'd have liked to linger as opposed to pushing on to the next crew point.
There were 62 finishers altogether, a fantastic new race to add to the must-ride-it-before-I-die list. The ride has a website where stat lovers can get the facts. We photographed and wrote up both rides for EnduranceWorldOnline but it probably won't be out til the next issue.
Allen, Hannibal and Nicki