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

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.

Unrivaled: India now 7-0 in World Cup games against Pakistan

Updated 17 June 2019

Unrivaled: India now 7-0 in World Cup games against Pakistan

  • Conditions did not dampen the enthusiasm of a predominantly pro-India crowd 

MANCHESTER, UK: For such an intense rivalry, it is still a lopsided contest when India and Pakistan meet at the Cricket World Cup.

India extended their record to 7-0 against Pakistan at the World Cup with an 89-run victory in a rain-interrupted encounter Sunday that likely will remain the most-watched game of the six-week tournament.

India started ominously with Rohit Sharma scoring 140 from 113 deliveries and skipper Virat Kohli contributing 77 in a total of 336-5, a record for a One-Day International at Old Trafford.

Pakistan were always behind the run-rate required.

Fakhar Zaman (62) and Babar Azam (48) put on 104 for the second wicket but when both were dismissed by left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav within nine balls, Pakistan’s hopes faded with them.

When Hardik Pandya took wickets with consecutive deliveries in the 27th over, Pakistan were 129-5. And with a result in play because both teams had batted more than 20 overs, there was no chance of sharing points if rain prevented any more play. A delay after the 35th with Pakistan at 166-6 just prolonged the inevitable.

Pakistan were  set a revised target of 302 from 40 overs and the last five overs were a non-event with Pakistan finishing 212-6. India remained unbeaten in four games to start the tournament.

The conditions did not dampen the enthusiasm of a predominantly pro-India crowd that filled the 162-year-old venue to its 23,500 capacity. Seats were in excessively high demand, after all, with the International Cricket Council reporting more than 800,000 ticket applications for the game.

There is always extra significance when the nuclear-armed neighboring countries meet at ICC tournaments because India and Pakistan play cricket so infrequently in bilateral series.

This was no different, with a 1 billion-plus TV audience and an almost football-like atmosphere at the ground.

Kohli’s single to get off the mark was met by “Kohli-Kohli-Kohli” chants from the predominantly pro-India crowd.

Sharma set the tone with his second century of the tournament, sharing partnerships of 136 with KL Rahul (57) for the first wicket and 98 with Kohli for the second.

He seemed ready to really unleash when he needlessly paddled a ball from Hasan Ali to Wahab Riaz at short fine leg in the 38th over.

Kohli continued, becoming the third Indian batter to pass 11,000 ODI runs. In doing so in his 222nd innings, he became the fastest to reach the milestone.

Kohli was on 71 and India was 305-4 when rain stopped play for the first time in the 47th over. The India captain was caught behind off Mohammad Amir’s bowling not long after he returned from the 55-minute rain break and, surprisingly, walked off before umpire Marais Erasmus had a chance to signal him out.

There was some speculation Kohli did not edge the ball but it was inconsequential in the end, as India passed Sri Lanka’s 318-7 against England in 2006 to set the highest ODI total in Manchester.

After a batting onslaught at the top, Pakistan pegged back the run-rate slightly as Amir (3-47) dismissed Pandya (26) and then had MS Dhoni (1) and Kohli caught behind — both the ex-captain and captain walking.

Things started going haywire for Pakistan after skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed won the toss and fielded, going against the advice sent via social media by Prime Minister and 1992 World Cup-winning captain Imran Khan.

Overcast and cool overhead conditions that usually would favor swing and seam bowling didn’t greatly assist the Pakistan attack, with India racing to 52-0 in its most productive opening power play of the tournament.

The Pakistan pacemen had trouble with the umpires, with Amir and Wahab each cautioned twice for running on the protected area in the middle of the pitch. One further warning would have resulted in a suspension.

It also didn’t help that opener Imam-ul-Haq got out in rare circumstances to Vijay Shankar’s very first delivery at a World Cup — it coming on the fifth ball of Pakistan’s fifth over after Shankar was asked to finish it off for injured teammate Bhuveshwar Kumar.

Pakistan’s next game is at Lord’s against South Africa, which also has three points and only remote prospects of reaching the semifinals.