World quest for Higgins combo

01:04, Sep 24 2010

Representing New Zealand is becoming a bit of a family affair in the Higgins household.

This time it isn't shooter Phillip wearing the silver fern. Instead, it is wife Alison's turn to do the nation proud.

On Sunday, she and their horse Twynham El Omar will line up in the 160km endurance race at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.

The Nelson-based combination will be one of three Kiwi combos on the starting line.

But it was Phillip who started Omar, breaking him in and riding him for the first three years.

As a shooter, Phillip represented New Zealand at both world championship and world cup level. These days, he's happier grooming for his wife in her bid for glory.

Advertisement

Omar is the third of the late Leo Nisbett's horses to represent New Zealand at world championship level. In the hands of Alison, he won the 2010 100-mile South Island Championship.

She's got no qualms about the world games race she faces this week, but says that starting line will be something else.

"We're used to 1am starts, when everyone is calm – we'll be in a pack with 130 or so others. It's going to be tough."

It's not the first time she has been chosen to represent New Zealand. In 2008, she and Omar got the nod for the World Endurance Championships in Malaysia but turned it down over worries about heat and humidity.

She knows they'll face a fair bit of that this weekend but is happy that Omar seems well acclimatised. "I think he's probably coped a lot better than we have with the heat."

The endurance team has been based on a farm not far from the Kentucky Horse Park and will make the move into the bedlam of HQ today. They will be the first Kiwis competing at the 2010 games.

Alison is aiming to do the big race in eight hours or less.

"We'll go at around 18-19kmh for the first few loops, then step it up. That's most definitely achievable for him."

That said, her big priority is the team.

"I would most definitely sacrifice an individual placing for the team," she says.

That's a thought reiterated by endurance chef d'equipe Madonna Harris. With just three in the New Zealand team, there is no room for error, with no chance of any team accomplishment if all don't finish the race.

The input of those supporting the riders is just as important as those on the horses.

"Our grooms have to be particularly adaptable and malleable to ensure we get through this," says Harris. "After looking at the layout of the course and the vet gates, we've had to make a few changes to our strategies and learn some new techniques."

Harris says it will be a testing time, although she has every confidence in her trio of riders.

"Of all the disciplines, this really is the toughest. Throughout the race we present to the vets seven times."

At any time, if the horse's heartbeat doesn't come down fast enough or there is a niggle of any sort, a combination can be pulled from the race.

There is a pre-race vet check tomorrow before the games' opening ceremony.

The heat will be another big challenge for the endurance competitors, as will the mass start. Around 130 combinations are expected on the starting line. Anxiety levels will be at fever pitch, and the half-hour before the race and the half-hour into the race can be make or break.

"Everyone is wired," says Harris. "There are flags, banners and general mayhem going on – our riders just need to find an area and remain calm."

Combinations will do six loops of varying distances throughout the race. The shortest is 18km and the longest 39.9km.

"This is a four-star-rated race and calls for courage and control."

That's the highest ranking, held only at world games or world championships.

"As good as these riders are, they are completely inexperienced at this level, so it is a big ask for all."

The Kiwi horses left New Zealand in late August and have acclimatised well. Harris says each is in peak condition and ready to race. In recent days they've had plenty of attention, including the magic hands of New Zealand team equine physiotherapist Nikki Lourie.

Harris is picking a Spanish combination to take the teams title and perhaps the United Arab Emirates for the individual title.

"But I am very confident about the quality of our own horses and our ability to ride at speed. We just need that bit of luck to go our way."

The World Equestrian Games are being held in Lexington, Kentucky, and run until October 10. New Zealand is represented in showjumping and eventing as well as endurance.

It is the first time the games have been held outside Europe, and they feature more than 800 riders from nearly 60 countries.

The event is expected to be worth around US$150 million (NZ$205m) to the local economy.

Nelson