Euston Park, near Thetford, was the stunning venue for the 2012 World Endurance Championships, which were held on Saturday 25th August. Forty countries were represented at the Championships and a total of 153 riders set out on the gruelling 100 mile course. The six strong British team was made up of Alice Beet from Surrey, Tricia Hirst from Wales, Annette Masterson from Staffordshire, Catriona Moon from Somerset, Lesley-Ann Parker from Cambridgeshire and Christine Yeoman from Somerset.
Endurance is a competition to test the competitor’s ability to safely manage the stamina and fitness of the horse over an endurance course in a competition against the track, the distance, the climate, the terrain and the clock. Diligent application of skill together with a caring, knowledgeable attitude by the rider is vital to be successful, and those setting out today would need every ounce of experience as well as a portion of luck to get to the end. The average speed at World Championship level is expected to be 20kph to be in medal contention, which means keeping up a good canter for most of the 160km or 100 miles.
The World Championships are one of the very few endurance races that begin with a mass start. The full 153 riders all set off in what can only be described as a cavalry charge, a brilliant early morning spectacle for those looking on. A good pace was set from the outset, with riders from the Arab nations setting the pace. The reigning World Champion, Maria Alvarez Ponton of Spain, riding her popular 17 year old horse, Nobby, was in the leading group along with riders from the UAE including HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Of the British contingent, Annette Masterson riding El Sabio, and Alice Beet riding Adara Sauveterre both got off to a good start. Lesley-Ann Parker riding Velvet Echo, Catriona Moon and Leila, Tricia Hirst and Majin des Pins and Chris Yeoman with LM Crazy Girl preferred to stay out of the mêlée and with 160km to go, a steadier start would prove a wise move.
The layout at Euston Park enables the course to be set out as a series of loops, with a central vet gate located at the main venue, close to the start/finish line, providing excellent viewing for spectators. The leaders came back into view at 8.30am, and to everyone’s delight, the first into vet gate 1 was Maria Alvarez Ponton with Nobby, having completed the first loop of 38km at an average of 24.39km per hour.
On arrival at the vet gate, the support crew get to work to cool the horse and bring the heart rate down to 64 bpm or below as quickly as possible. The horse must be presented for veterinary inspection to check pulse, soundness and metabolics. There is then a compulsory stop of 30 minutes for rest and refreshment before they can depart on the next loop. The top horses have a remarkable recovery rate and at vet gate 1 they were presenting to the vet in less than 2 minutes.
News soon filtered back of the retirement of British individual rider, Catriona Moon riding Leila, out on the first loop due to lameness. This was devastating for Catriona but was a stark reminder that this flat course was extremely technical with sharp turns and variable going that could be sandy then stony then soft. The first British rider into vet gate 1 was Annette Masterson with El Sabio, coming in 12th making an average speed of 23.38km per hour. Alice Beet and Adara Sauveterre came in 46th, making a speed of 20.36km per hour. Chris Yeoman and Tricia Hirst both made a speed of over 18kph and Lesley-Ann Parker was just behind.
Vet gate 1 is hectic as not too much time separates the competitors. After their compulsory 30 minutes, riders queued to get out on the second loop of 29km. There was disappointment for Lesley-Ann as she realised that her mare, Velvet Echo, has stiffened up during the stop and the decision was taken not to continue.
After the sunshine of the early morning, a heavy downpour had spectators rushing for cover while competitors battled the elements on course. The rain soon passed and the first riders started to arrive at vet gate 2 at around 10.30am. First back was HE Sheikh Rashid Dalmook Al Maktoum, followed by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Maria and Nobby had slipped back to 4th but were still averaging 23.21kph. Annette Masterson and El Sabio were going strong in 13th, and Alice Beet and Adara were holding a good position in 57th.
Tricia Hirst and Madjin des Pins, and Chris Yeoman and LM Crazy Girl, had picked up the pace on the second loop and came into vet gate 2 looking good, but there was disappointment for Chris when LM Crazy Girl failed to pass the veterinary inspection on lameness. “There were some very stony bits on that loop and she must have just trodden on something or knocked herself. There was nothing to see. We were going so well. I am gutted”, said Chris later.
Loop 3 was 30km and saw competitors cross the picturesque water crossing twice; a magnet for photographers, as well as being a useful spot to allow horses to take an extra drink. On each loop there are several designated crewing points where horses are “sloshed” with water to cool them and offered a drink and riders can also pick up refreshment - the crew often run alongside the horses throwing water onto them to minimise the time that they are delayed.
The leaders were back at vet gate 3 by 12.35, and HE Sheikh Rashid Dalmook Al Maktoum was still leading for the UAE, followed by two Spanish riders, including Maria and Nobby in 3rd. Annette and El Sabio had been going well but sadly they vetted out at gate 3 on metabolics.
The organisers expected a high attrition rate this is renowned as a tough course and the veterinary inspections are stringent. “This is the World Championships and to be competitive we need to be making these speeds. It is what we have trained for, so it is very disappointing for Annette and sadly also the end of our team chances”, said team chef d’equipe, Annabelle Schofield. Alice and Adara were maintaining a good, consistent pace, completing loop 3 at 20.38kph and climbing to 42nd place. Tricia was also keeping up a strong pace at 20.89kph and now in 55th postion.
The 4th and 5th loop of 20km and 23km saw Alice and Tricia claiming yet more places and vetting through well, despite more torrential rain. They set out from vet gate 5 on the 6th and final loop of 20km at around 5.30pm.
The crowds gathered to give HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum a rapturous welcome as he rode a strong finish to cross the line first riding the 12 year old chestnut gelding Madji du Pont, with the top 3 places all going to riders from the UAE. The final vet inspection confirmed his victory and he became the World Endurance Champion. He completed the 160km at an average speed of 22.82kph, riding the final loop at 27.6kph to complete the course in 7 hours and 45 seconds.
A violent storm struck and torrential rain fell as many riders were still on course, but hardy spectators remained to cheer home the British riders in an emotional finish; Tricia Hirst and her 12 year old grey gelding, Madjins des Pins, in 15th place, completing the final loop at 22.63kph, and Alice Beet, with the 16 year old grey mare, Adara Sauveterre, in 25th place, completing on an average of 19.34kph. “The hail on the last loop was unbelievable and the going had become really slippery. Adara slipped and nearly came down once, and it did slow us down a bit, but we came home safe and it was not worth the risk to go any faster. Adara was very consistent throughout the race, maintaining consistent loop times and she presented [at the vet gates] very fast as her heart rate was excellent. The next morning she was absolutely fine and she had lost no condition. Our average speed was our best time ever”, explained Alice.
The powerful thunderstorm caused a dramatic conclusion to the event in the early evening. The top 52 individuals and top four teams had already finished and the medals had been decided, but some of the slower competitors had still not started out on the sixth and final loop. The inclement weather meant that there were concerns for the health and safety of horses, riders and everyone else involved due to the thunder, fork-lightning and torrential rain that suddenly descended. As a result, the distance was reduced to allow those combinations still on the latter stages of the course to finish at vet gate five and to be classified according to timings on the shortened distance.
Further information on the members of the Endurance team can be found at www.equestrianteamgbr.co.uk or www.endurancegb.co.uk.