Racing: Romance in the face of adversity

Sue Montgomery discovers the secrets of an enduring racing genre
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The Independent Online
THE FEATURE race at the summer festival in Newmarket this week, the July Cup, will take around 72 seconds to complete. The contest being run round the historic Heath at racing's headquarters today is a slightly different matter. An international field of more than 50 endurance riders will cross the start line on the Rowley Mile at six o'clock this morning. Ten hours and 87 miles later, some of them will finish.

Endurance racing is not for a faint heart, human or equine. But the challenge it offers has made it the equestrian world's fastest growing participation sport, with appeal right across the board. The entries for today's marathon come from eight nations and range from Sheikh Mohammed, crown prince and defence minister of Dubai and the world's biggest racehorse owner, to 15-year-old Nottinghamshire schoolgirl Vicky Davies-Holloway.

There is a certain romance surrounding the idea of man - or woman - and horse bonding in the face of adversity. For Sheikh Mohammed, it is a case of getting back to his roots, to the time when his not-so-distant forbears depended on the fitness of their steeds for their lives.

He may have better-known, more commercially important horses to watch later in the week, Cape Verdi in the Falmouth Stakes, for example, or the British debut of one of his French-based Godolphin two-year-olds. But a day in the saddle on one of his desert Arabs sublimates the hands- on side of this competitive horseman's instincts.

Mohammed and his teenage son Rashid have a fleet of endurance horses at their disposal. Gill Campbell, from Lambourn, has just one. She keeps her 13-year-old mare, Barwani, in a stable in her neighbour's garden, and they provide a familiar, if rather different, sight in the Berkshire racing community as they pound the miles, at least 10 a day, in training alongside the downland gallops. But, where her antics were once regarded with amused tolerance, they have now earned respect.

For endurance riding is not just an amble through the countryside. At the top level - and today's race is a trial for the European championships later in the year - the horses must keep up a speed of at least 10mph (that's a brisk trot or canter) for hours on end carrying a minimum 11st 11lb and must pass a series of stringent veterinary checks en route.

Knowing one's horse backwards is a sine qua non. Barwani (an Arab; the breed that is the ancestor of the thoroughbred excels where stamina and soundness is at a premium) is, according to her owner, a bit of a bag, but one tough cookie with the mental as well as physical qualities needed for the exacting job. "Most horses can go 50 miles easily," said Campbell, "but, beyond that, attitude kicks in. You can't bully a horse for 100 miles. Riding Barwani is now almost telepathic. If she is settled to a rhythmic trot and I ask her to canter and she won't, I don't argue, because I know she knows she's at her most efficient pace at that time.

"In the later stages of a race, horses can begin to lose concentration. Some like to follow in the slipstream of another, moving on autopilot. But Barwani likes to be in front. She's happy towing, not being towed.

"Company can be a help to the rider; having someone to talk to can stop you getting too introverted and means you relax and let the horse get on with it. But all the while you're thinking that, at some stage, you've got to lose this person."

It is at the vet gates, as in the Formula One pit stops, that races can be won or lost. The faster the horse's pulse drops to the required level, the sooner it can continue. The judgement of the rider in pacing each leg of the race and the skill of the back-up crew - in Campbell's case her husband Cameron, who works for jumps trainer Oliver Sherwood, and son Neil - in cooling and relaxing the horse are crucial elements. There are just two chances to satisfy the vets before elimination.

The winner of Newmarket's July Cup will earn pounds 90,000. The winner of the British Endurance Riding Association race will take home no money, but something perhaps more valuable, the intense satisfaction of a considerable achievement shared.