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.


‘It’s epic’: Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal stars tour incredible Ad Diriyah E Prix venue

Al-Nassr’s Nigerian superstar Ahmed Musa (back right) joins (front left to right) Al-Hilal’s Ali Al-Habsi and Mohammad Jahfali and (back left) Saleh Alweheemed ahead of this weekend’s 2018 ‘Saudia’ Ad Diriyah E-Prix. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 10 December 2018
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‘It’s epic’: Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal stars tour incredible Ad Diriyah E Prix venue

  • 22 Formula E drivers will battle it out for glory this weekend
  • "I’m very happy to see how Saudi Arabia is becoming a rising name for big sports"

JEDDAH: They may be fierce rivals in the Saudi Pro League, but some of the biggest stars of Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr football got together to tour the venue of one of the most anticipated motor racing events in Saudi history.
The players soaked up the atmosphere as they visited the home of the 2018 ‘Saudia’ Ad Diriyah E Prix.
This weekend the 2.495km track created within the stunning UNESCO World Heritage site of Ad Diriyah will see 22 Formula E drivers battle it out for glory.
Goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi said: “I’m totally amazed by what they have built here, the track, the grandstands, the hospitality, it’s incredible what they’ve created for the Formula E.  It’s epic.
“As a professional athlete I’m very happy to see how Saudi Arabia is becoming a rising name for big sports, this will be a fiercely fought contest which is sure to thrill the fans.”

 (Left to right) Al Hilal star players Alberto Botia, Abdullah Almaiouf, Mohammad Jahfali, Ali Al-Habsi and Carlos Eduardo visit the new Formula E track at the stunning UNESCO World Heritage site of Ad Diriyah. (Photo/Supplied)

The racing extravaganza will also be accompanied by fan zones, entertainment and cultural attractions.
Three nights of music concerts will feature some of the biggest names in world. 
US smash hit OneRepublic and superstar DJ/producer David Guetta will wrap up the event after the race ends on Saturday with Enrique Iglesias, Jason Derulo and Amr Diab performing from Thursday.
Al Nassr’s Nigerian superstar Ahmed Mussa said: “We’re all about entertaining fans and bringing people together, that’s what football and sport is all about. These three nights will be a spectacle like nothing we’ve seen before and I urge our fans to come and be part of history.”