Spain's Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton and her super-horse, Nobby, wrote their names into the history books of the sport of Endurance today when adding the individual gold medal at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Kentucky to their 2008 World Championship and 2009 European Championship titles. The hat-trick has never been done before, and Nobby's extraordinary recovery-rate proved key to their success once again. But Ponton herself is something of a super-woman. Only seven weeks ago she gave birth to her daughter, Maria, yet she had the stamina, skill, physical fitness and concentration to win the coveted title against the sharpest competition today.
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) took the silver medal with Ciel Oriental while his son, His Excellency Sheikh Hamdan Bin Al Maktoum took bronze, and it was no surprise when the UAE claimed the team title as His HE Sheikh Hamdan joined with HE Sheikh Majid Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum and Sheikh Rashid Dalmook Al Maktoum to finish well ahead of the French in silver medal position and Germany in bronze.
HH Sheikh Mohammed was in the lead at the first vet-gate ahead of Ponton in second, and the eventual winner was still lying in runner-up spot at vet-gate 2. But she established a 12-second advantage at vet-gate 3 and once she got the bit between her teeth she didn't let go. She increased her lead to 33 seconds at vet-gate four but it was on the final loop that she left the rest behind, pushing for home. She really moved on in the closing stages, completing the last loop at an average of 29.44 kilometres per hour and although HH Sheikh Mohammed and HE Sheikh Hamdan were considerably faster, averaging 31.66 kilometres on this part of the course, Ponton's overall average speed won the day.
Back in the field, a battle for fourth place ensued between America's Heather Reynolds, riding Ssamiam, and Jean-Philippe Frances riding Hanaba du Bois for France in the closing stages. Reynolds left the final vet-gate in second position behind Ponton, but was overtaken by HH Sheikh Mohammed and HE Sheikh Hamdan and it was the Frenchman and his 2007 European Championship winning horse who finished just outside the medal placings in the final analysis.
Force To Be Reckoned With
Ponton and Nobby first burst onto the international scene in December 2006 when slotting into third in the 120 kilometres race in Dubai and they have been a force to be reckoned with ever since. Her husband, Jaume Punti-Dachs who is one of Sheikh Mohammed's leading trainers, is also a highly competitive international Endurance competitor so while Maria was waiting for their baby to arrive Jaume kept Nobby in good shape, steering him into fourth in the Dubai CEI 3-Star in April. Today however his job was looking after Sheikh Mohammed's horses while his wife and her team ensured Nobby gave of his best. Her win looked like a breeze for Ponton and her little 148cms super-champ, but the winner insisted that while the win felt wonderful, it had been no easy victory.
Force To Be Reckoned With
"There were a lot of good horses and the track was really strong. People said it would be easy because the course was flat but it wasn't flat at all!" she said. She admitted that securing this title so soon after the birth of her baby was something of a tall order. "I thought it was probably impossible to compete at the Games once I was pregnant. But I was riding him for the first five months and my husband took him over then. I've been back riding for the last couple of weeks" she explained to the astonished listeners.
Talking about Nobby she said "he has a huge heart and it responds really well but when he wins a race he doesn't just win it with his heart, he also wins it with his head!" she pointed out. She said that this win was much more difficult than the one she faced when taking the World title in Malaysia two years ago - "I had to fight much harder against almost 20 horses today" she said. "In this sport you have many sad days, then some happy days, but days like today are something very special" she added.
Nobby will now have a two-month break but he won't be turned out in a field because he travels with Ponton wherever she goes and she is now heading back to Dubai where she spends half the year - the other half based in England. Her next target may be the 2011 European Championships, but for today she was just delighted with her extraordinary horse and happy to return to her baby daughter to tell her the good news. Those who saw the 34 year old rider and her incredible 15 year old horse finishing so fresh and elated today knew they were watching a special moment in the history of any sport - they were simply in a class of their own.
For full results and startlists go to www.alltechfeigames.com
Facts and Figures:
The winning team from the UAE completed with a combined time of 23:53:36.
The third-placed German team were one of the surprises of the competition.
Japan fielded a team for the first time in these Championships, but did not complete.
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum who took individual silver today "I just took care of my horse and finished strong".
Gold medallist Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton "this was really nice, I came here under plenty of pressure today so I feel very relieved!"
FEI TV - As well as live competition coverage throughout the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™, FEI TV will make all competitions available post-event via VoD, plus an exclusive daily 30-minute VoD highlights show from the Kentucky Horse Park featuring the best of the day’s action, interviews, previews and reviews. There will also be lots of behind the scenes footage available. Check out www.feitv.org
Photo Captions: Spain's Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton and Nobby on their way to securing individual gold in the Endurance Championship at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Kentucky, USA today. Photo: FEI/Kit Houghton.
Spain's Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton and Nobby take gold. Photo: PhelpsPhotos.com