The number of endurance riders and nations competing at the upcoming Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games beats all previous attendance records, writes Berry Pattison.
When the 160km ride gets under way at Normandy on Thursday, August 28, some 47 nations from as far afield as China, Colombia, Kazakhstan and Thailand, will take their place on the track.
There are definite entries from 173 athletes, with 198 horses declared for the competition in Sartilly, just over 100km from the main Games venue in Caen.
The ride base opens on Monday, August 25, and National Federations are able to enter up to five athletes and seven horses for the pre-ride inspection, with chefs d’equipe declaring their final horses after the inspection.
The 2014 Games has seen the introduction of a higher minimum speed, this year set at 15kph, to ensure that all horses competing are fit enough to deal with the distance and tough questions asked on track. And for the first time at Championship level, the 160km track is made up of only five loops rather than the more traditional six-loop format.
With a start time of 7am, combinations will set out to tackle one of the most technical courses in recent Championship history. Loop 1, La Lucerne is 37.9km long and stretches to the north of the venue. Loop 2, Avranches is 35.8km long, and includes the stunning bay with the incredible backdrop of Mont Saint-Michel.
Champeaux, the third loop, is 32.8km long and covers ground to the west of the venue. The penultimate loop, Jullouville, is 33.1km long while the final loop, Dragey, is the shortest at just 20.4km, stretching out to the south-west of the venue.
This year will see many familiar faces, both equine and human, battling for the ultimate title in endurance riding. Expectations are high for the home nation, France, which has one of the most consistent track records of podium positions over recent years. France took team gold in Jerez de la Frontera in Spain in 2002 as well as Aachen (Germany) in 2006. The French also scooped team silver in 2010 in Kentucky (USA) and will no doubt be looking to step back up to first place on home soil.
Whilst the French team fields some new faces on the Championship scene, one of the most experienced team riders of all is included in the line-up. Jean Philippe Frances has, since 1997, represented his country at Championship level no less than 10 times and will certainly be looking to claim the gold in front of his home crowd.
Alongside France, there will be a keen interest in the UAE, Germany, Spain and Oman, who have dominated the top spots over recent years. But, with the emergence of some exciting new endurance nations such as Costa Rica and Slovakia, the race is wide open. Both the United States, who narrowly missed out on a team medal in the 2012 World Championships at Euston Park (GB), and New Zealand have a high chance of bringing home a medal, with both nations showcasing young, upcoming talent alongside experienced, seasoned combinations.
On an individual level the event is just as open. With the notable omission of the endurance great Nobby, who is now enjoying his well-earned retirement, the status of favourite equine must be held by the incredibly talented 15-year-old mare, Yamamah (previously named Kurrajong Concorde and bred by FEI Award Winner Meg Wade of Australia) who is declared as one of the squad horses for the UAE. Another familiar name on the definite entries list is the legendary Easy Fontnoire, which was part of the silver medal French team in Kentucky. Four years on, this 12-year-old mare will now be partnered by Saudi athlete Tarek Taher.
Many young riders are included in the 2014 line-up and they pose a formidable threat to the senior opposition. Oriana Ricca (URU), winner of the 2013 Pan-Am Games, will partner Talita Kumi, the Spanish horse she rode to fourth place in the Junior/Young Rider World Championships in Tarbes (FRA) last year. Kelsey Russell (USA), who finished fifth in the same Championships aboard Valerie Kanavy’s My Wild Irish Gold, will once again partner this talented bay Anglo-Arab, competing in their first senior Games.
With such high levels of teamwork required, endurance is often thought of as a family, all-inclusive discipline and this year is no exception. Nearly 60 years cover the ages of the athletes, with the youngest entrant being 14-year-old Constanza Laliscia (ITA), with the oldest – 72 year old Rouslan Gekiev from Russia – turning 73 just three weeks after the event.
Six teams include family connections. Both Germany and Luxembourg field sisters, Melanie and Sabrina Arnold competing for Germany, and Mickels and Valy Schmartz flying the Luxembourg flag. The well-known faces of Heather and Jeremy Reynolds will both be part of Team USA, whilst Spain will be represented by well-known husband-and-wife team, Jaume Punti Dachs and Maria Alvarez Ponton. The Spanish family links at the Games don’t stop there, as fellow team member Javier Cervera has a cousin competing in the Jumping at D’Ornano Stadium in Caen.
New Zealand has selected mother and daughter Andrea and Georgia Smith, who will both be competing on home-bred horses. And finally, it really is a family affair for Australia, with mother and daughter Penny and Alexandra Toft competing and father Peter Toft acting as chef d’equipe.
With such widespread talent the endurance event at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy is sure to be one of the closest contests in a long time and is most certainly not one to be missed.
For the non-Olympic athletes competing in Endurance, the FEI World Equestrian Games is the absolute pinnacle of their sporting career, with many years of training and dedication going into just one day of performance. With horse welfare and fair play top of the agenda, the opportunity to watch the talents and abilities of these top level combinations competing across the dramatic French countryside is eagerly anticipated.