Now it begins. I've worn many 'hats' in this sport - rider, journalist, groom, organizer - but I think that no matter which hat I am wearing, my heart is with the organizer. There is so much involved in hosting a ride - so many variables (entries, trail access, weather...) it is so unpredictable, and yet there is so much heart and hope and passion that goes into 1) wanting to host a ride and 2) wanting to provide the best trails possible and 3)wanting to provide the best of care to the horses and riders and 4)wanting everybody to have a good time - it's such a labor of passion.
So my heart is with Jose Manuel Soto and his team. The months of planning and preparation... Andalucia had a tough winter - cold and wet - record rains in the south of Spain this winter. Many trails had to be changed, many driving routes changed, and still there are problems with swollen rivers and mud. Many of the usual riders from Spain couldn't attend this year - partly because of the hardships caused by the winter rains and ruined crops and farmland, and partly because of the deteriorated economy in Spain, and especially in Andalucia.
Andalucia's economy has historically been in agriculture, and more recently in tourism. And most recently this sunny region experienced the boom that many of the world's sunbelts experienced. More houses, more construction, more people, more easy credit. Two decades ago the unemployment rate in Spain was close to 20%. With the credit and housing boom of the late 1990's and the 2000's it fell to below 8% from the influx of sun-seeking people and new construction and new businesses. When the bottom fell out, the credit dried up, and the construction halted - Spain suffered, particularly in the south. Now the unemployment rate is approaching 20% again, and horse back riding is a luxury that many can no longer afford.
The entries for this year's Raid Kaliber Tierras de Andalucia are down almost 50% - and my heart is with the organization. The work is no less, the hopes no less, they still offer the same miles of trail across the heart of Andalucia - the same incredible hospitality. They still welcome all with smiles and warmth and still offer the best care for the riders and the horses. I just returned from the welcome luncheon, held at the hippodrome where the horses are stabled until the actual race starts. Plenty of good food, wine, beer, hospitality. And the Spaniards are without equal when it comes to smiles and warmth and good nature (well the Malaysians may be equal). It must be the sunshine, but they are a beautiful and passionate people, always a quick smile - always a friendly warmth. I'd forgotten how special Spain is. It's good to be back!
I've seen many familiar faces - the organizers, the veterinarians - several riders keep coming back each year. from France, Germany... I met up with Fernando Uriarte this morning. He gave me his mare (Arenal) to ride two years ago. Strong friendship there, Fernando is fantastic - everybody's friend. Paco will be here this evening (he and I rode many miles together across Andalucia). He will be riding Arenal this year. And this year she is very fit, and Paco will probably ride at a faster pace. And many new faces - Eric Chouhmat is here representing Polar - he and Fernando have common business interests. Several new (to me) riders. One group of Andalucian riders is being sponsored by Arabe Andalucia - breeders of Arabians - and during lunch they said be sure to say hi to Merri! It is because of her great photos that we were able to obtain sponsors. (yay Merri!). They promised me a very good jamon (iberian ham) if I take many pictures of them... I raised the ante to dos jamon. ok! Many many people have already asked me to say 'hi' to Merri and the Raven. They do get around :)
So, it's good to be here. I'm sort of sorry I'm not riding, but then again I'll be free to be more of a tourist, take more photos, eat more great food, drink more great wine. Really, it's just good to be here! (and today is my birthday - it's good!)