It's just before dawn in the desert of Seyh al-Salam, deep in the interior of the emirate of Dubai, but already there is a quiet bustle of activity under the bright lights of the endurance racing center in the dunes.
Horses nicker softly, and there is the familiar squeak of leather on leather as saddles are hoisted up and girths tightened. I can hear snippets of jokes and clipped commands in a half dozen languages, as riders, trainers and support teams from around the world prepare for the start of the United Arab Emirates' second annual World's Most Preferred Endurance Ride. This is no ordinary horseback trek, but a top-level endurance race, a two-day contest that will require competitors to cover an astonishing 200 kilometers (125 mi) over several roughly circular courses in the desert.
Called "the sport of a million steps," endurance racing is one of the most challenging international equestrian competitions for both horses and riders. And in the UAH, where the sport has found a particularly hospitable home, it takes on the added challenge of the hot, dry terrain of the desert. Unlike the brief cavalry charge of a thoroughbred race, an endurance race has a series of stages, each varying in length and difficulty. In musical terms, the rhythm of an endurance race is something like a fugue, with a multitude of variations played out on a similar theme. From the haven of the endurance compound, the competitors will venture out each day for four different forays into the sands of Seyh al-Salam, returning after each stage of the race for a veterinary inspection of the horses and a chance to rest and rehydrate. The key part of the race, some riders told me, won't even begin until the last 30 kilometers (19 mi).
Even so, there is a quickening of tension and excitement as the moments before the start of the race tick away. If this race follows the pattern of previous ones, fewer than two-thirds of the horses entered will even finish. With strict veterinary checks along the way, any horse with even a hint of a health or soundness problem will be removed from the competition. "For some riders, just to finish is to win," I had been told by leading us rider Valerie Kanavy, who won the last World Endurance Championship race, held here in Dubai in 1998. "There is a lot to this sport, from the training to the horsemanship," she said. "And even if you've done your homework, plenty of things can go wrong."
As the horses are led from the sheltered stable area toward the enclosed staging ground behind the gates through which they'll leave and return to the compound, the animals toss their heads, some prancing in anticipation. They are veterans of the sport, all at least five years old, by local and international rules. They've had to pass a number of tests in order to reach this level of racing, and there's little doubt they have some notion of what lies ahead. Almost all are of Arabian bloodlines, although many have been flown in from Europe, Australia, and North America to compete in this race.
The riders hoist themselves into the saddle, some getting a boost up from team members, and I can recognize a number of the trainers, riders, and horses I've been following during the past few days of race preparations. Checking on several horses and riders is Ismaeel Mohammed, the wiry, ebullient former Dubai policeman who now heads the training program for Shaykh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the defense minister of Dubai. Although Shaykh Mohammed himself won't be riding in this race, he often competes, and his sons have taken up the sport. His three eldest sons, Rashid, Ham-dan and Maktoum, still in their teens, will be riding today, with Hamdan aboard the high-spirited Ali Leujah, one of the favorites to win. Just two weeks earlier, Ali Leujah had won an 80-kilometer (50-mi) race at the new Al-Wathba endurance racing center in Abu Dhabi, with Rashid as the rider. At the end of that race, Ali Leujah, a former sprinter that Ismaeel Mohammed had discovered and purchased in Australia, had been prancing as though he were ready to go another 80 kilometers.
The endurance world, for all its high-profile competitors, still seems very much a family affair, with friends and relatives often serving as trainers, teammates, or cheering squads. Also in the race from Dubai are the veteran Hassan bin Ali, a former camel trainer who rides and trains for Shaykh Mohammed's brother, Shaykh Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum; and yet another trio of siblings, Mohammed Ali al-Shafar and his brothers Khalid Ali and Osama Ahmed. Their father, a contractor in Dubai, will follow their progress in the race from his four-wheel-drive vehicle. From the tiny nearby emirate of Ajman is Shaykh Ahmed bin Humaid al-Nuaimi, a rising star in the sport, who trains and rides his own horses. After victories in two races in the UAE this year and a surprising victory last year in Australia's big Queensland State Endurance Ride, where he was the first non-Australian to win, he's currently ranked as the top endurance rider in the world. Rashid al-Maktoum, who was a top rider last year, is currently a close second.
Among the challengers from North America is Canadian rider Christy Janzen, aboard her well-regarded 10-year-old mare Tais, known for her consistency. Janzen, whose husband Dan heads her support team, has done well in three previous races in the Emirates, including a ninth-place finish in this race last year. Janzen checks the pocket of her specially made numbered vest to make sure she hasn't forgotten her "smart card," the chip-embedded cards assigned to riders that will make it possible to track their progress by computer as they enter and leave the compound at each stage of the race.
Altogether, there are 55 riders entered, and they appear to be a remarkably diverse bunch, including men and women of many ethnic backgrounds, ranging in age from teens to 60's and in size from short and slight to tallish and substantial. Unlike thoroughbred racing, there is no advantage in endurance racing to being small or thin, since all horses must carry a minimum weight, which is currently about 70 kilos, or 154 pounds. Any difference is made up by weights placed in the saddle.
At a signal from the announcer, all the competitors gather and begin to position themselves behind the entrance gates, some jostling a bit for position up front, but most apparently content to keep their horses in the middle or toward the back of the pack. With nearly 10 hours of riding ahead, getting a jump oh the pack is not a particularly advantage. And then they're off, streaming out into the desert as the first rays of light turn the buff-colored sand a mellow gold..Some are trotting, some already at a gallop, though they'll soon slow to a steady canter. The wind and the thundering hooves stir the sand into a kind of mist that envelops the horses and riders as they head toward the horizon, following the green flags of the first course, and it's an unexpectedly dramatic sight.
The support teams have already left in their four-wheel-drive vehicles, some to wait at watering stations along the course, and I head for my own vehicle to try to find a good vantage point to view the early progress of the race. For spectators, I have learned, watching an endurance race is itself a kind of participatory sport. Either you find a high lookout point along the way, or you try to maneuver your vehicle along the track, being careful to stay on the leeward side of the horses so as not to stir up the sand—and so as not to get stuck. This first stage is among the easiest, along a fairly hard-packed track, and as I stop my vehicle and climb the highest dune along the course I can see that Hamdan al-Maktoum and Ali Leujah have already gone to the lead, and they are setting a strong pace, with Rashid al-Maktoum and their teammate Abdullah Bilhab close behind. The rest of the riders are already strung out behind them, some going along in groups of two or three.
Ahmed bin Humaid, the Ajmani, is in the middle of the pack, moving up gradually and easily, as he had told me he planned to do when I asked him a few days earlier about his strategy. "You never want to push too hard early, or go neck and neck with other horses all the way," he said. "You find a pace that works for you and your horse. You place yourself where you want to be and ride your own race, even while you stay aware of what everyone else is doing. Then, when it gets closer to the end of the race, you see what your horse has left. If your horse is capable, you go for it." And if the horse is not, he added, you wait for another day: "The last thing you want to do is harm your horse."
Riders, in fact, can go to great lengths to protect their horses. Ismaeel Mohammed, who used to ride in the races before training became a full-time job, recalled a race that took place between the emirates of Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah, during which he took the lead but decided to dismount and walk when he felt his horse tiring. He walked several kilometers to let the horse recuperate, he said, and watched as the eventual winner passed him. "With your horse, you have to give as well as take," he says.
So far, things have gone smoothly in today's combination of old-fashioned horsemanship and high-tech innovation—as though the Emirates had been hosting such races for ages. But in fact, the UAE has traveled a considerable distance in this sport in a remarkably short period of time. It was just seven years ago that the country sponsored its first endurance race, of sorts, with a somewhat haotic competition between horses and camels. The start of the30 kilometer (19-mi) race was marked by a cannon blast, and things did not go exactly as planned, according to Faisal eddiq al-Mutawa, a top official of the UAH Equestrian and .acing Federation, who is helping to officiate the race at Seyh I-Salam. "The horses were worried about the camels," he says wryly. "It was like a zoo." (The race was won by a horse, he says, responding to my curiosity.)
Despite that somewhat inauspicious beginning, however, number of leaders in equestrian sports in the Emirates ecame serious about endurance racing as an organized sort. Members of the federation traveled abroad to observe ow distance racing was conducted in other countries, and egan to plan how the UAE should launch itself into the sport. In 1996, a handful of riders from the Emirates leased leased from owners in the US and elsewhere in order to parcipate in the world championship ride in Kansas, and one rider managed to finish 12th in that race. "We were clearly new to the game," says Seddiq.
Within just two years, however, the UAH was selected as country for the next world championship ride. Although in one sense the UAE has had to play catch-up in the sport, it and other countries in the region might be regarded as having had a considerable head start—of many centuries—when it comes to handling the Arabian horse. The Arabian was selectively bred in this harsh, demanding environment to continually improve its stamina and soundness. (See Aramco World, March/April 1986.) Not surprisingly, it has proved to be the superior breed for endurance racing, even in cold, mountainous climates, and there is something rather fitting in its return to its place of origin to further demonstrate its mettle. "This horse is very personal to us," said Faisal Seddiq. "It is part of our history."
In 1998, construction proceeded apace in Seyh al-Salam on the permanent endurance-racing "village" in the desert, the first of its kind in the world. Uah officials, according to Seddiq, felt that having a permanent compound "so that we could gather ourselves in one location, would make the sport more functional and make it a more interesting game." In the past, most endurance races had been from point to point, beginning at one location and ending at another. But with competitors returning to the same location after each stage, the support teams, veterinarians, media and spectators have a fixed base from which to operate.
"The sport has really improved here," observed Mohammed Ali al-Shafar, who finished fourth in the 1998 world championship. He has been riding, he says, since he was a child but "not really pushing" as an endurance competitor until the past few years. In 1999, a hiatus year between the biannual world championships, the UAH added a late-winter race to the calendar, sponsoring the first World's Most Preferred Endurance Ride, and many of the top foreign riders from the world championships returned to compete with local riders. This time, it was UAE riders who dominated the race. "They've risen through the ranks very rapidly," says former winner Valerie Kanavy of the uae competitors. "I expect them to be a strong force in this year's world championship ride in France in August."
As the sport continued to grow locally, a second permanent endurance site was added last year at Al-Wathba, near Abu Dhabi's camel racetrack in the dunes south of the city. But the UAE has also become an enthusiastic promoter of the sport in the other countries, sponsoring races in Europe and in other Arab countries, including Syria, Bahrain and Egypt. The federation maintains a kind of portable endurance support unit that can be dispatched to help organize events outside the country, complete with a computerized timing unit and an experienced team of racing officials and veterinarians.
If UAE equestrian officials have been keen to improve some technical aspects of the sport, however, they're also been intent on sustaining some of the sport's more informal aspects. And that has meant keeping it open to ordinary riders and owners and maintaining a feeling of openness during the races, where spectators, family and friends can mingle with the competitors and observe every step of the race. "We want to keep it a sport not for professional riders," says Faisal Seddiq, "but for horse lovers and for the whole family."
Ahmed bin Humaid, for example, who attended business school in the United States, spends a good deal of time looking after his business affairs. "This is still mostly an amateur sport in most ways," he says. Most of the people who ride have day jobs," he says. "They take the time to train after work and on weekends." And as for the difficult, demanding nature of the sport, he says, with a smile, "That's the point." Rut it's also the point, he adds, to have a good time during the race, and at one stage I could see him riding alongside two other competitors, laughing and joking.
As the competitors return to the endurance compound at the end of the fourth stage, the last of the first day, I am startled to see that bin Humaid has moved all the way up to the fourth position, trailing Hamdan al-Maktoum and Ali Leujah by only 10 minutes. The number of riders still in competition has decreased considerably, and by the end of the veterinary checks, a total of 19 riders have dropped out. When horses return from the course, their handlers have 30 minutes to get the animals' heart rates down to the regulation 64 beats a minute or be eliminated. "We also look for signs of dehydration, and we listen to the sounds of the gut to make sure their digestive systems are working properly," explains Jim Bryant, one of the attending veterinarians. At the "vet gate," or inspection center, the horses are led back and forth at a trot to determine that they are still sound and healthy. They are then led to "crewing bays," the shelters where they are worked on like boxers in their corners between rounds. There are fans to keep air circulating, and some horses get massages, which is more comfort than the riders receive.
By the next morning, horses and riders seem remarkably fresh, and they head out with as much eagerness as the day before. This time, however, they depart the compound at staggered times, according to the results of the previous day's race. I've been told that the pace today will probably be a bit slower than yesterday's, when the top three finishers averaged a speedy 21 kilometers per hour (about 13 mph). At the end of the third course, Ali Leujah's average speed has dropped just below 20 kilometers an hour. But as I check the computerized results, I notice that Penbac Park Caleb, Ahmed bin Humaid's horse, has.actually increased his speed a bit from yesterday's pace. And as the riders prepare to leave for the last round, bin Humaid now has less than five minutes to make up on the leaders. He leaves the compound at a gallop, and they are really moving. He's going for it, as he put it a few days earlier.
I find a vantage point atop a dune about a mile from the compound, and through my binoculars I can see three horses moving along, just steps apart. Bin Humaid and Penbac are barely trailing Hamdan al-Maktoum on Ali Leujah and teammate Abdullah Bilhab aboard the Spanish horse Luzan. I run to my car and join the caravan of four-wheel-drives following the action, as the three horses canter along, neck and neck. And now all three are galloping flat out, and I jump from my car to watch the final hundred meters of the race. Ali Leujah finally gives way grudgingly to the other two horses. They continue to duel, and Penbac edges Luzan in the final seconds, with Ahmed bin Humaid leaning low over his neck like a thoroughbred jockey.
As the horses fly through the gates, I find myself applauding and yelling, along with the rest of the crowd, cheering for the sheer grit of these astonishing animals and for the horsemanship of their riders. I look over at Peter Toth, a Australian trainer who works with Ismaeel Mohammed, and he's a bit choked up. He puts his hand over his heart and thumps his chest softly, saying, "These horses never stop giving. They're amazing animals." And they prove it yet again by passing the veterinary check without a hitch. Their heart rates have returned to normal within minutes, and Ali Leujah, though he is clearly tired, still has a bit of bounce in him. The riders, too, still have something left, as the top three competitors offer each other a smile and friendly embrace.
Later, I am reminded of something that Valerie Kanavy had said about what it's like to ride here in the desert. "I think that when people dream about horses, about riding them, what they dream about is something like this—this feeling of freedom, of wide-open spaces," she said. And it is clear why this sport has taken root here so quickly and become part of the landscape and part of the culture of this region. Already, it seems to have been here for ages.
Carol Flake Chapman, who lives in Austin, Texas, is the author of two books about horses, and once, at a camel-race meeting in Dubai, read on television an ode she had composed in honor of a winning camel. She regrets that her own late, beloved Arabian horse Majedd, a retired endurance racer, never got the chance to race in the desert.
Lorraine Chittock (www.cats.camels.com) is a free-lance photographer and writer living in Kenya with an assortment of animals both in and outside the house. She has published two books: Shadows in the Sand: Riding the Forty Days' Road (1997) and Cairo Cats: Egypt's Enduring Legacy (1999).