Racing: Marathon to quicken the pulse

Over an 87 mile course yesterday an endurance test reached enthralling climax.
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THE SCENARIO was perhaps unremarkable, Sheikh Mohammed and his entourage watching one horse beating another by a couple of lengths at Newmarket. The difference was that the famous straight was the final effort in a contest rather longer than usually witnessed at racing's headquarters. The Rowley Mile was the last of 87.

At a minute to three yesterday afternoon the 41-year-old Saudi Arabian businessman Tarek Taher and his brown eight-year-old Java passed the post just ahead of Irishwoman Jane Stanley on her chestnut Sharikh. They and 46 others had set out at 6am to tackle a course that took them looping round the training gallops and out towards the neighbouring town of Bury St Edmunds along Suffolk's lanes and bridleways.

The race, run under the direction of the British Endurance Riding Association and sponsored by local equine auctioneering firm Tattersalls, was the highest-powered international event of its type held in Britain. Taher is world champion and over a flat, fast course he and his hard, lean gelding kept up an average speed of 15 miles an hour.

Endurance riding is a fast-growing sport with an appeal that is easy to fathom. It is not spectator-friendly like conventional racing but its format makes for considerable excitement. At regular intervals the horses must undergo stringent veterinary checks - a human marathon runner can make the decision not to go through the wall, but the equine equivalents must have it taken for them - and the tension at these pit stops is palpable as the back-up crews wait for their rider.

But first in does not always mean quickest. At a compulsory short break the clock stops ticking only when the horse's pulse rate has reached a level low enough to satisfy the vets and a canny judgement of pace can turn around minutes lost on the course. Taher's expertise was such that with a top limit of 60 beats per minute, Java's rate had reduced to a laid-back 48 almost as soon as he pulled up for the final time.

But at the 75-mile mark it seemed as though Mohammed might be celebrating a compensatory win after Xaar's near miss at Sandown. The Sheikh, among the entries for the race, had elected instead to join the pit crew of his 17-year-old son Rashid, chasing him enthusiastically round the countryside in a Godolphin blue landcruiser. Rashid, ninth after the first leg, picked off his rivals one by one and, legged up and cheered away by his father, cantered away from the final vet gate on the little grey mare Djamila 10 minutes clear of the field.

All he had to do was not get lost to win but, as the Sheikh's binoculars scanned down the Rowley Mile in vain, it became clear that is just what he did. Just like real racing there was a stewards' enquiry, and Stanley was demoted a place in favour of another Emirates rider, Saeed bin Huzaim, on one of Hamdan's horses, Ceylih, for taking a small short cut. The top- placed British rider was Jenny Jackson, 10th on her Connemara pony Burning Best, 37 minutes after the winner.

Poor direction markers might have been to blame for Mohammed's disappointment, but where horses are concerned, it is an emotion he understands. And any father of an air-headed teenager would know his clenched fingers, eyes- to-heaven gesture of frustration as victory was snatched away.