Martin Stirling was the star turn at the 2011 FEI World Endurance Championship for Juniors and Young Riders in Abu Dhabi over the weekend when the 15-year-old schoolboy led Uruguay to Team and Individual glory.
The French stood in silver medal position on the team podium ahead of the Australians who took bronze, and it was Australia's Allix Jones who was runner-up for the Individual title. Firming up the dominant position of the Uruguayan squad at this biennial event, Oriana Ricca claimed Individual bronze while team-mate, Maria Pereira, took the Best Condition Award after finishing individually seventh with Mi Jade.
It was a surprise result all round, with high expectations that riders from the United Arab Emirates would feature prominently. The UAE's Hussain Ali Al Marzouqi steered his horse, Sergai, to win the last FEI World Endurance Champion for Juniors and Young Riders held in Hungary in 2009, while Ahmad Ali Al Sabri and Alizee de Marjolaine claimed the Open category gold at the European Junior and Young Rider Endurance Championships in 2010.
It did seem that the title might well be in the UAE's grasp once again on Saturday, as Sheikh Khalifa Bin Mohammad Al Hamad led throughout the third and fourth stages and looked the one to beat. But, despite a three-minute lead going into the final 16kms loop, he and his horse, Ultimo, dropped to fifth at the end of the day.
For Stirling, who was accompanied by his parents, two brothers and his baby sister, and by Magdalena Odriozola who owns his winning ride, Vendaval, it was a spectacular achievement.
"I was confident" he said afterwards. "I wasn't far behind the leading horse in the second-last loop and my horse was in good shape when I went into the last 16kms."
A total of 28 nations were represented at the event - Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Spain, Estonia, Finland, France, India, Italy, Mexico, Namibia, The Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Oman, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Slovakia, Sweden, South Africa, Uruguay and the host country, the UAE. Teams were mainly comprised of four riders, with the scores of the best three taken into account.
Competitors arrived early last week and the opening ceremony took place at the Emirates Palace on Wednesday evening. The next day they took a trip to the Desert Safari Dinner, and on Friday horses underwent the pre-ride veterinary examination. The 120km race was run over five loops of 33kms, 27kms, 24kms, 20kms and 16kms.
Considerably More Difficult
The action, staged by Adec, kicked off at 6.30 on Saturday morning at the Emirates International Endurance Village in Al Wathba, and the course proved considerably more difficult than many had anticipated.
"The track was certainly challenging", said Ian Williams, FEI Director of Non-Olympic Sports who attended the event. "It included relatively flat going, but also a lot of sand dunes and local forestation - some sections were quite demanding. It was a real desert ride, with horses going from level terrain into deep sand in the dunes, so it called for clever riding and good technique from all the competitors" he explained.
The completion rate of over 60% was impressive, as was the average speed of 22.581kph achieved by Stirling's horse Vendeval, who was a polo pony in a former life, and who looked as happy as his young rider as they crossed the line after 120kms of tough sport in a total riding time of 5 hours, 18 minutes and 51 seconds.
Individual silver medallist Allix Jones was less than a minute behind with Castlebar Moonlight whose average speed was 22.567kph. And it was a moment to savour for the horse's owner, Margaret "Meg" Wade, one of the great heroines of equestrian sport who won the FEI's "Against All Odds" Award, but missed out on the presentation at the 2011 General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro last month when her flight to Brazil was cancelled. Meg's extraordinary recovery and return to the saddle after the multiple champion suffered a traumatic brain injury in a fall two years ago has been nothing short of inspirational.
Bronze medallist, Oriana Ricca, completed the course with Hunter Toro in five hours, 35 minutes and 25 seconds and at an average speed of 21.466kph, fractionally faster than Argentina's Manuela Basombrio and Tio Langa.
The Uruguayan team victory was a convincing one, when Stirling, Ricca, Pereira and Juan Pablo Viana (Larkeena Del) completed with a total time of 16 hours, 35 minutes and 53 seconds, almost a full hour ahead of the French silver medal-winning side that included Nina Lissarrague (Al Jaime De), Lea Vogler (Al Abjar), Julien Lafaure (Petra Cabirat) and Lisa Riou (Favela), whose average speed was 20.538kph as opposed to the winners' 21.707kph.
Australia's bronze medal finish was all-the-more impressive for the fact that this was only a three-strong side - Jones joined by Brooke Warner (Kunama Safira) and Alexandra Toft (High Society Te) to complete in 18 hours 14 minutes and at an average speed of 19.964kph.
Talking afterwards about the test they had faced, the champions from Uruguay explained that their plan was always to work as a team and to concentrate on taking a team medal, so the individual success was a major bonus. "We were not expecting to finish first and third individually!" they said.
The French declared themselves pleased with team silver. "We prepared our horses for the desert and the sand, but we didn't expect that the course would be so difficult", they said. The Australians declared it "a great course", and agreed that it had been a strong test. "We thought it would be flat, and not very technical, but actually it turned out to be very challenging. We thoroughly enjoyed it, it was a great competition!" they enthused.
The result may well have changed the face of international Endurance riding, with the next generation of senior riders from the South American countries very much to the fore as they claimed five of the top eight places in the Individual rankings - Ecuador's Rafaela Darquea steering Tequila into eighth place.
And Martin Stirling is certainly a name to remember. He rode with maturity well beyond his years, and only showed his emotion as he crossed the winning line with tears in his eyes and a big smile on his horse's face. "To win the Team and Individual gold was really fantastic!" said the delighted young man who enjoyed the ride of his life.
Team: GOLD - URUGUAY 21.7078, Vendeval (Martin Stirling), Hunter Toro (Oriana Ricca), Mi Jade (Maria Pereira), Larkeena Del (Juan Pablo Viana); SILVER - FRANCE 20.5383, Al Jaime De (Nina Lissarrague), Al Abjar (Lea Vogler), Petra Cabirat (Julien Lafaure), Favela (Lisa Riou); BRONZE - AUSTRALIA 19.9644, Castlebar Moonlight (Allix Jones), Kunama Safira (Warner Brooke), High Society Te (Alexandra Toft).
Photo Caption: Uruguayan wonder-boy, 15-year-old Martin Stirling, rode the nine-year-old Vendaval to Team and Individual gold at the FEI World Endurance Championship for Juniors and Young Riders 2011 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.