Morocco desert stallion race pushes limits of endurance

A rider competes during the “Gallops of Morocco” equestrian race in the desert of Merzouga in the southern Moroccan Sahara desert on March 1, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 17 March 2018
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Morocco desert stallion race pushes limits of endurance

ERFOUD, Morocco: Battling gusts of sandy wind, riders from across the world struggled to control feisty stallions as they raced in the first Gallops of Morocco, a desert endurance challenge.
In a country with an ancient history of horsemanship, the event in the wilderness of Merzouga was the first of its kind — a six-day test of stamina, navigation and teamwork.
Competitors spend four to seven hours a day in the saddle, covering up to 30 kilometers (18 miles) of rough terrain a day.
“You need a certain physical resistance,” said Deborah Amsellem, 30, who headed from Toulouse, France, with four friends to take part in the race near the oasis town of Erfoud.
“It’s not very technical, but you’re riding stallions, real alpha males,” she said.
Riders use stopwatches to pace themselves and GPS devices to find their way through the sandy plains, deep dunes, rocky hills and passes.
The unforgiving terrain and fickle weather are not the only challenges: competitors must ride Barb stallions they have never met.
The North African breed, originally a warhorse, is known for its toughness and stamina but also for its hot temper.
Fifteen teams took part in the late February adventure, made up of 80 horse-lovers, enthusiasts of everything from trail riding to polo.
Organizers say the event is designed for “rather hardy riders who should be in good physical condition and have a feel for horses in order to cope with the distances.”
Saif Ali Al-Rawahi, coach of a team from Oman, described the event as “very difficult.”
“There are kilometers in the mountains and in the desert,” he said. “The horses have to ride on high dunes, the weather is not so good, very windy. It’s difficult for horses and riders.”
Oman was the site of the first “Gallops” race in 2014, and Rawahi’s group of five soldiers from the Gulf sultanate’s cavalry are accustomed to endurance races. Even they had to make do with coming fifth.
“The trek is not just a race for professionals,” said Benoit Perrier, a race official.
On the first day alone, several riders fell off their horses and some gave up entirely — while others said they were exhausted but enjoying the challenge.
“If we wanted to ride the same distance in the Lille region (northern France), there would be highways and barbed wire,” said French businessman Gregoire Verhaeghe.
“Here we have a real sense of space.”
Having taken part in the Paris-Dakar rally four times, he said he loves the desert and made no complaint about the bad weather.
His family’s team came first.
Riding unknown horses, Barb stallions specially brought in from across the country for the occasion, is part of the experience.
Omar Benazzou, an official from Morocco’s equestrian governing body SOREC, said he had headed to the event “out of curiosity.”
The Barb, long associated with North Africa’s Berber ethnic group, “is a horse with a big heart, sturdy, docile, resilient and can cover long distances,” he said.
Morocco is determined to develop equestrian tourism, benefiting from its unique breeds to attract new visitors.
The country largely escaped the chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring uprisings, remaining safe and stable enough to attract an influx of tourists.
The southern desert is a favorite destination for those seeking an outdoors experience.
“You have hiking, car rallies, mountain biking and discovery trips,” said Sadoq Abdedaim, owner of the upscale hotel chain Xaluca.
Claire Biyache, a French rider with eight years’ experience who took part in the Gallops event, praised the “beautiful” surroundings.
“We’ve seen lots of very different scenery, sometimes very black, very mineral, sometimes dunes, sometimes oases,” she said.
The adventure came at a price. For Deborah, a student, the $5,200 (4,200 euro) fee was “a real stretch.”
But Dato Beh Chun Chuan, a Malaysian businessman who flew to Morocco specially for the race, said it was “very cheap.”
“The most important thing is to have fun and have friends,” he said. “Winning is not my main agenda in life.”
The 62-year-old millionaire owns a polo club with 54 horses and employs four Argentinian riders to play with him.
His team at the desert race included fellow businessmen and bankers with “money to spend,” he said.
His only regret was that his bivouac was not comfortable enough.
He was not able to rent a helicopter to return to the hotel for the night.


Liverpool's unfashionable midfield the support act for Mohamed Salah

Updated 36 min 42 sec ago
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Liverpool's unfashionable midfield the support act for Mohamed Salah

  • Egyptian now has a remarkable 43 goals for the season
  • But he was backed up by a combative midfield trio of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum

LIVERPOOL: When Liverpool was last making a charge at the Champions League title, its midfield had legitimate claims at being among the best in the world.
It was 2008 and Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano made up an engine room that had a bit of everything: Energy, vision, work rate, goals.
Fast forward a decade and Liverpool is back among Europe's elite with a rather more unfashionable and functional central midfield that is proving to be just as effective.
Mohamed Salah naturally hogged the headlines after scoring two goals and setting up two others in Liverpool's 5-2 win over Roma in the first leg of the semifinals on Tuesday. That made it 43 goals for the season for the Egypt winger, who has fast become the darling of Anfield and an icon back in his native country.
Yet Salah couldn't operate so effectively, and with such freedom, without the tireless and unselfish work of Liverpool's central-midfield three, which against Roma mainly comprised of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum.
That's the same Henderson who is often castigated and held up as a poster boy for the England national team's midfield woes in recent years. The same Milner who is now retired from England duty and has a parody Twitter account — "Boring James Milner" — named after him with 612,000 followers. The same Wijnaldum who was relegated from the Premier League with Newcastle two years ago.
This trio dominated the game against Roma, getting the better of Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman — arguably more illustrious counterparts — and laying the platform for Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane to run amok further forward.
"We didn't give any space away," Klopp said, with a nod to his midfield. "We controlled the game in a very nice football way."
That was often an accusation against Klopp, that his midfield couldn't control games because the team was too gung-ho in attack, leaving Liverpool's defense exposed.
This time last year, Philippe Coutinho was playing as a deep-lying central midfielder. The Brazil playmaker played lethal through-balls and scored some high-quality goals from long range, but didn't have the discipline and awareness of a natural center midfielder.
Coutinho's departure to Barcelona in January robbed Liverpool of one of world soccer's most creative minds but has invariably helped to shore up Klopp's midfield. The midfield now consists of three of Emre Can, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain — all hard-working players who chip in with goals.
It's no surprise that Liverpool's defensive record has vastly improved as a result, especially with Virgil van Dijk a commanding presence at center back since joining for $99 million — a world-record fee for a defender — in January.
Milner, meanwhile, has emerged as something of a cult hero at Anfield — and an unlikely record-breaker in the Champions League.
When the 32-year-old Milner sent in a corner that was headed in by Firmino for Liverpool's fifth goal against Roma, he became the first player to have nine assists in a single Champions League campaign.
That sums him up, really, a player content to leave the glory to others. Milner was appreciated at Manchester City for his selflessness and versatility but he has blossomed further since his 2015 move to Liverpool, where he now is an out-and-out central midfielder after filling in at left back for most of last season.
Henderson is fully fit and is developing into a leader, albeit a more unassuming and less dynamic one than previous captain Gerrard. Wijnaldum has a knack of scoring big goals at Anfield and rarely lets Liverpool down, as shown against Roma when he replaced the injured Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 18th minute and slotted straight into his role.
With Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana potentially out for the rest of the season and Can also injured, Klopp is short of midfield cover outside of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum for Liverpool's final three Premier League games and, potentially, two more games in the Champions League.
Keeping Salah, Mane and Firmino fit has always been Klopp's priority this season. He'll be wrapping his three remaining senior midfielders in cotton for the final month now, too.