Saturday, February 03, 2007

Malaysia: Radzi Sapiee considers Endurance: II

Excerpt from Radzi Sapiee's writings on Endurance

Part 2. Endurance is no walk in the park

NOBODY laughed when Azhar Abu Bakar took nearly 20 hours to finish the 160km 1998 World Endurance championship in Dubai. If anything, many were amazed. He might have finished last among 78 riders but there were more than 80 other riders who didn't even last the distance.

In fact, Azhar created history when he became the first Malaysian to finish an FEI (International Equestrian Federation) race, a Category A meet and a world championship to boot. He was also the only Malaysian to finish then.

Earlier, the field were amused when Azhar and four other Malaysian riders, our first representatives in the sport, came to Dubai with criollos, Argentinian-bred horses which they said is only good for field work."Even the Argentinians laughed at us. Everyone was using Arab-breds and even then they know it's hard to finish. So we were the butts of their jokes," recalled Datuk Awang Kamaruddin Abdul Ghani, who also competed in the meet.

So why the fuss over Arabian horses? For one, it is a very beautiful creature admired by horse-lovers. But the real advantage is the breed has the strength and stamina to last the distance, along with a good recovery rate.Pushing a tired horse to go the distance is a taboo in equestrian as this is considered as cruelty to an animal. Horses have been known to die from dehydration and such and thus veterinarian checks are conducted in stages over a race.

Checks are also conducted before a race starts as a horse might be sick overnight. At the later stages, including the finish line, horses found limping or whose heartbeats exceed certain rates (normally 64 beats per minute and horses have to be submitted for a check within 30 minutes of arrival at designated gates) will be disqualified along with the riders.

The same goes for dehydrated animals. Riders with fit horses can submit their animals earlier and start the next stage sooner. A winner is the person who completes a whole course inthe shortest riding time (vet check-time subtracted) without failing the checks, meaning the first rider to arrive might not necessarily win.

For example, this writer was in Montcuq, France last year to accompany Awang Kamaruddin who participated in the two-day 2x100km championship there and saw the then reigning champion, Tareq Tahir, disqualified over a silly mistake. The frontrunner thought his horse was in the clear when he personally checked the heartbeat rate at 50 per minute. However, the rate shot to 70 when he checked the horse in, all because, believe it or not, the horse got excited when the crowd cheered!

That is why Azhar's finish in Dubai was a big feat. And that is also a reason the Malaysian Endurance Racing Society (MERS) were created at the end of 1999. Previously, there were efforts to get Malaysians to do 100km races here immediately but this had mostly ended up with sick horses.As FEI rules apply for races 90km and above, MERS introduced their own and started having 40km and 60km rides. Their secretary, Rosli Dahlan, said they called it rides to discourage inexperienced riders from being overzealous."If it's called races, they might push and kill their horses," he said.

Under MERS rules, both rider and horse must finish a 40km ride twice to qualify for 60km. They must do the same to qualify for 80km and so on. MERS started conducting the rides last year but had to abort 80km rides due to lack of qualified participants.

But they have pushed for endurance riding to be introduced in the coming Sea Games in Kuala Lumpur and that will cover 105km, equivalent to an FEI Category B event. So they must start a series of 80km qualifiers soon.Their first 80km event was run in Sungai Buloh a month ago although there was only one rider. Luckily, the 40km and 60km rides have more than 20 riders. The qualifiers only increased in number when nine riders competed in the second 80km event at Terachi, Negri Sembilan in March where six finished, the most so far in the peninsula.

But its real significance is the fact that the event is the first ride here conducted in a real countryside. Unlike previous rides held on club grounds or plantations, ordinary folks, including villagers from the affected kampungs, were involved from the start while others came by thedroves.Some, seeing a horse race for the first time, were perplexed when they saw the riders going through what looked like a walk in the park.

"This is a race, isn't it. Aren't the horses supposed to gallop?," one asked.Well, we've already explained it. At least we know they are interested.If they know they could get a horse for as cheap as RM500, a fact no one would mention in the proud circle of riding clubs who pride themselves in showjumping and dressage, they might also want to give endurance a try.This is the real milestone that Terachi event has brought and we'llexplore this further in the next article.

* NEXT: 3. Creating an equestrian culture in Malaysia

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