Aachen, Germany, August 21, 2006 -- The 100-mile endurance ride at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) became a slog as rain dogged the horses in the final hours of what is a grueling test under the best of conditions.
With so many chances for problems along the way, endurance is a hard event to predict. But most knowledgeable people were counting on the United Arab Emirates to take one or more individual medals. There were four UAE sheiks competing in the event, and none finished. All got spun at one of the vet checks along the route.
So the surprise winner of the 2006 WEG's first medal was a Spaniard, Miguel Vila Ubach, the 1999 European champion, on Hungares, a Hungarian-bred gray Arabian who has won two other championships this year.
Miguel was all alone at the finish, a little more than 12 hours after the event started at 6 a.m. Coming down the home stretch in the big stadium, where about 20,000 people were on hand to greet him (amazingly, considering the horrible weather) Ubach put on a show by dropping his reins and holding his arms out to the side, pretending he was an airplane, tilting right and left, as he grinned, then cried with joy.
The French, one of the favorites to excel here, took the team gold medal, as pals Virginie Atger and Elodie Le Lebourier earned the individual silver and bronze, respectively. They rode in together a few minutes after Miguel, explaining they wanted a tie so each would get a silver medal. Sorry, kids, it doesn't work that way. Switzerland was second and Portugal third in the team race.
The U.S. failed to finish a team of three riders, as it has now done at every world championships since 1998.
Nevertheless, chef d'equipe Valerie Kanavy, a former world champion herself, said "I'm proud of them. They rode really great. Some things don't go your way, but they stayed to the plan."
The biggest problem was Christoph Schork's horse getting spun leaving the final vet check. Valerie and U.S. team vets felt that was a controversial call, but there's no appeal.
Though three U.S. riders did finish, one, Meg Sleeper, was riding as an individual. She wound up 21st, behind 63-year-old Kathy Downs, who was 17th. Kathy gives hope to all of us who are growing older and still like to ride. Jen Niehaus, the last U.S. rider to finish, took it easy after the team dream was dead, not wanting to push her horse.
If Meg had been on the team, the U.S. would have been ranked in the standings, but Valerie said "I don't feel I made the wrong decision with the information I had" in that regard. Meg's Shyrocco Troilus bruised his hoof a few days ago, and Valerie was worried that one misstep on a rock would finish his chances.
With a long gap between the start and finish of the endurance, visitors had a chance to stroll around the showgrounds, which have taken on the air of a not so mini-mall. Dozens of little shops are huddled between the beer bars and sausage stands in white tents down avenues named after famous horses, such as Starman Strasse (strasse means street in German) or Jappeloup Strasse.
There is every kind of tack imaginable (a lot of browbands in the German red, black and yellow colors), tons of breeches and helmets in a bunch of hues. Add to that horsey jewelry by, it seems, the ton; elegant clothing with a Tyrolean flair and all sorts of horse equipment and therapy items, and you can spend a lot of time browsing (or maybe even buying, though the Euro is so strong against the dollar I haven't been tempted. Okay, I've been tempted, but I haven't bought anything).
My favorite shop so far is Horsemax, which has a display of items for national rooters. As you can see in the picture, one of their best sellers is an artificial lei for 3.5 Euros in the German colors of red, yellow and black. Couple that with a 10-Euro Deutschland hat and a couple of 1-Euro Germany No. 1 buttons, and you don't have to say, "Go Team!" for people to know you're a rooter.
Nils Jacobs, the nice guy who runs the store, said the French are his second-biggest customers. I saw hats from a whole bunch of other countries, but nothing from the U.S.
Nils told me he will have plenty of red, white and blue for the 2010 WEG in Kentucky. As I was leaving, he pinned a Germany No. 1 button on my shirt. It looks sort of funny for an American to be wearing it. I don't think the U.S. team would take kindly to it. But guess what? I can't get it off!
So I'm going to work on that for awhile. Then tomorrow, I'm concentrating on the first day of grand prix dressage and I'll show up in a different shirt, sans button, now that my luggage has arrived.
Watch for coverage tomorrow of the first day of grand prix dressage and chat about the WEG with fellow fans at forum.equisearch.com.
Plus, visit EquiSearch's WEG section for more stories and the complete competition schedule.