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.


Atletico beats Real Madrid 4-2 after extra time in Super Cup

Costa equalized late in the match with his second goal before Saul Niguez and Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion sealed the victory. (AP)
Updated 16 August 2018
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Atletico beats Real Madrid 4-2 after extra time in Super Cup

  • Atletico’s victory over its crosstown rival had added significance after it lost two Champions League finals to Madrid
  • The loss leaves new Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui still having to prove that there is life after Ronaldo

TALLINN, Estonia: Atletico Madrid finally got the better of Real Madrid on the European stage, scoring twice in extra time to win 4-2 in the UEFA Super Cup final on Wednesday in its rival’s first game without Cristiano Ronaldo.
Atletico got off to a flying start with Diego Costa scoring the competition’s fastest goal just 50 seconds in, but Madrid came back to take a 2-1 lead as Los Blancos tried to prove they can still win trophies without Ronaldo and with a new coach.
But Costa equalized late in the match with his second goal before Saul Niguez and Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion sealed the victory in extra time on a cool night in Estonia’s capital.
Atletico’s victory over its crosstown rival had added significance after it lost two Champions League finals to Madrid in 2014 and 2016. Diego Simeone’s team was also eliminated by Madrid in the 2017 semifinals.
“I’m elated,” Costa said. “Real Madrid has always beaten us in these finals. It was our turn to win a final.”
The loss leaves new Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui still having to prove that there is life after Ronaldo, who scored 450 goals in 438 matches before joining Juventus this summer and helped lead the club to three straight Champions League titles.
“I’m sad. I’m frustrated. It’s a final that we lost,” Lopetegui said. “But I also know that we will have to wake up and prepare ourselves for our first league match and start the season on the right foot.”
Gareth Bale showed glimpses of his pace and skill, but couldn’t mimic Ronaldo’s ability to decide a game on his own.
Instead, Costa was the one who dominated at the Lillekula Stadium in Tallinn. He overpowered Madrid’s center backs in the first minute after a long ball from Stefan Savic, first winning a header against Sergio Ramos and then muscling past Raphael Varane to cut into the area where he beat goalkeeper Keylor Navas at the near post.
Karim Benzema equalized in the 27th minute, heading in a pinpoint cross from Bale, who was able to break away from Lucas Hernandez on the right and curl the ball into his fellow forward’s path. Bale, who was given a freer role than he’s used to, caused trouble for Atletico’s defense in the first half as he switched between wings. He was Madrid’s main creative spark at that point, with his teammates constantly trying to feed him the ball.
He faded in the second half, but Lopetegui was pleased with Bale’s performance.
“Gareth has played very good. In this moment of the season, all the players are not in the best physical way,” the coach said. “We are happy with his performance and we hope he’s going to put in deserved performances in the next matches.”
Sergio Ramos scored a penalty in the 63rd minute after Juanfran Torres handled in the area as the ball flew over him from a corner.
Juanfran made up for it in the 79th by taking the ball off Marcelo near the touchline and then passing to Angel Correa. The substitute then skipped past a couple of Madrid defenders and cut the ball back from the byline to Costa, who poked the ball into the roof of the net.
In extra time, substitute Thomas Partey set up the decisive goal when he stripped the ball off Varane and played a one-two with Costa before dribbling toward the byline. Partey then cut the ball back to Saul Niguez, who volleyed the ball first-time to send the ball past Navas to make it 3-2 in the 98th. Koke finished Madrid off with a cool finish in the 104th.
Lopetegui, who joined Madrid in controversial fashion and was fired as Spain coach just before the World Cup, will need to show that he can build on the success of predecessor Zidedane Zidane and can win with new tactics.
At times, Madrid looked uncomfortable playing under the new possession-based system and seemed to miss Ronaldo’s flair and proficiency.
“We need to improve on the all the phases of the team,” Lopetegui said. “We don’t like to make mistakes.”
Madrid had to play without new goalkeeper Thibault Courtois, as the former Atletico player didn’t even dress for the match. Spanish media reports said the team didn’t register him in time with UEFA following his transfer from Chelsea.
For Atletico, the victory gives the team a boost before the season starts, Simeone said.
“The club is growing. We have a new stadium,” he said. “We have players who want to join us, players who don’t want to leave us. I think this speaks volumes.”