Racing: Blazing a trail across Arabia

An elite group of horses and riders will next week race across 100 miles of desert.
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The Independent Online
THE MASSED start for the World Endurance Riding Championships sounds more chaotic and only marginally less dangerous than The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Some 200 riders and horses (more than twice as many as ever before) will be milling around in the dark on 10 December as they prepare for the 4am flare-lit start of this 100-mile race, which will be run in a single day through the deserts of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Vehicles will be setting out too. These will include a convoy escorting the best known of the participants: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, who is making his first attempt at the world title.

Jo Trego, one of the six British competitors who left for The Emirates on 19 November for three weeks of acclimatisation, believes that the massed start could be a nightmare with so many competitors - a lot of them first- timers. She would not, however, miss it for the world.

"That's when my adrenalin is up and kicking," Trego said, before she left her home near Shepton Mallet for the Middle East, carrying with her the best wishes of those at the residential home where she works as a night-time carer. All previous endurance championships have been held either in Europe or the United States. This one was scheduled to be part of October's World Equestrian Games in Italy until the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) received an offer they could not refuse from the sheikhs.

As the Arabs pointed out, their indigenous small, tough and wiry Arabian horses have dominated the sport since the inaugural World Championships of 1986. A trial run, held in February and won by Sheikh Mohammed from his son Sheikh Hamdan, was deemed a huge success by the bigwigs of the FEI.

The phenomenal number of entries for next Thursday's championships will inevitably provide logistical problems for the UAE Equestrian and Racing Federation, who are hosting the event, and for the former British Olympic rider, Michael Bullen (of Peden Bloodstock Ltd) who has been responsible for transporting around 200 horses from all corners of the world.

Trego is the only Briton with previous experience of competing in an Arabian desert, having ridden her Arab gelding, Oliver's Taboo, on a 26- mile marathon in Qatar in 1995. The start of that ride remains a vivid memory: "There were helicopters overhead and lots of vehicles, with everyone yelling, whooping and beating horns. It felt like being a film star."

The British team (seeking to add to World Championship victories of 1986 and 1990 and successive European team titles of 1993 and 1995) will not be rushing for an early lead on 10 December. "We'll try to stay together as a team and keep out of trouble," Trego said. "You gain nothing by racing over the first 25 miles; the faster you go, the longer it takes for the horse's pulse to come down."

The pulse rate is of vital importance at the five vet gates, which riders will enter by using electronic swipe-cards, and again at the finish. Stringent veterinary controls mean elimination for any horse whose pulse rate is not below a specified limit within 30 minutes of arrival.

Thanks to a massive investment by the Arabs, the vet gates will be at a lavish control centre in the desert, where shade and showers will be provided for the horses. This is where the back-up crews rush into action. Trego will have her daughter, Carly, and a friend, Aly Edwards, to give Oliver's Taboo a cooling shower and provide refreshment for horse and rider.

Those campaigning for endurance riding to be introduced as an Olympic sport can point to the knowledg e gained by the riders (most of them on inexpensive horses) and to the 40-odd nations taking part in the forthcoming championships, which is more than any recorded by other equestrian disciplines. "It is very much an amateur sport, we all do it for the love of it," Trego said. "Although we don't have any fancy facilities, we still manage to produce top athletes."

Trego first met Oliver's Taboo 12 years ago when he was only 18 months old. Had it not been her 26th birthday, she might have resisted paying the pounds 275 asking price which she could not really afford. Fortunately, she indulged herself and now has a wonderful rapport with her "incredibly gutsy little horse."

Sheikh Mohammed must have paid considerably more for his mounts (he has won three major endurance rides this year on three different horses) but you could hardly accuse him of having it easy.

He, too, will be facing a 100-mile ride at an average speed of 10 to 11 miles an hour (which means trotting and/or cantering for the entire journey). Like Trego, he may also find himself sitting down gingerly the following day.

BRITISH SQUAD FOR WORLD ENDURANCE CHAMPIONSHIPS (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 10 December): G Campbell (Barwani), G Hartley (Moon God), J James (Rowengay Garnet), A Newton (Dacoit), J Trego (Oliver's Taboo) and J Williams (Drumghigha Shiera).