The final evening at CHI Al Shaqab presented by Longines is always a little bittersweet: on one hand, it is sad to see the competition end (although most of the riders are will be back for next week’s Global Champions Tour date) but for those of us eager to get home it means planes to catch at ungodly hours (sleep fast, Wabbit). Also sad to be leaving such pleasant weather and heading back to the Great White North where March can be the cruellest month, hinting at spring one day and dumping a crapload of snow on us the next.

A woman painting horses on a wall.

Live painting at ringside.

A field of 39 were entered in the Longines Grand Prix, contested at 1.60m over Italian course designer Uliano Vezzani’s track. Unfortunately, the previous evening’s winners Emanuele Gaudiano and Chalou. who many had pegged to win this class, was withdrawn, likely due to concussion protocol after his warm-up ring mishap. From this group, the top 12 moved onto the jumpoff and consisted of 11 clear rounds and a one-faulter. Exactly half of these left all the rails up; it looked like nobody would be able to beat Eduardo Alvarez Aznar (ESP) and Rokfeller de Pleville Bois Margot speedy time of 43.23. Sweden’s Malin Baryard-Johnsson managed just that, however, shaving a mere .04 of a second off the leader with a lightening round aboard H&M Indiana.

Baryard-Johnsson described her jump-off strategy, choosing not to do a difficult inside turn. “It’s always tricky at that speed with her as she’s not super ridable; if you do an inside (turn) you have to be spot on. It’s just fantastic and in the end it worked for us.”

Indiana is a 16-year-old Belgian-bred mare (Kashmir Van Schuttershof x Animo’s Hallo) that the 49-year-old Swedish rider has had since she was a seven-year-old. “For sure she is the number one horse I’ve ever had, and she keeps coming back and she keeps going in the ring trying he heart out every time this week. Even if you make a mistake as a rider, she will fix it for you. She’s just incredible and she really deserved this one.”

Three riders standing on a podium.

(L-r) Eduardo Alvarez Aznar (ESP), Malin Baryard-Johnsson (SWE), Wilm Vermeir (BEL). FYI Malin’s fabulous blingy jacket is from H&M’s new All In Equestrian line. (photo: CHI Al Shaqab Presented by Longines)

Baryard-Johnsson wisely chose not to have Indiana remain during the prize-giving ceremony, which in itself is a massive spectacle with lights and music and pyrotechnics. “She doesn’t really ‘get it’ and she kind of panics,” she explained. “I don’t want to risk anything happening to her and it’s really hard once she freaks to calm her down. So I told my groom if she freaks, just to leave for her safety. Even before the class I had to warm up an hour before because I had to walk the course in between, and I cannot get back on her in the warmup. So she had to take her back to the stables and I had to restart everything. She’s really difficult to get on once you’ve gotten off.”

Regarding Sweden’s chances for a medal at this summer’s Olympic Games, Baryard-Johnsson commented, “Sweden is incredibly strong at the moment. We have gold in the Olympics, World Championships and Europeans. For sure we really want to win the gold again this summer and that’s why I’m here. My mare is starting outdoors early to try to get the right form for Paris.”

Results here.

During this time in Doha I really concentrated on enjoying all aspects of the experience, which really is a feast for the senses – the variety of languages spoken in the press shuttles, the diversity of music played by the drivers, even the different ringtones on phones in the media centre. The call to prayer resonating over the city. Watching the night classes under a full moon. Seeing the little kids enthralled by the entertainers and activities in the family zone. Even the marathon commute to get there and back was a unique opportunity to people-watch, enjoy the scenery, read, catch up on movies and relax.

Oh, and how did the Keto diet go, you ask? Pretty well, although one night I ate a plateful of delicious (gasp!) roasted root vegetables. On another day I found myself needing something suitable to transport a mound of guacamole from plate to mouth and employed some tortilla chips rather than shovelling it in with my fingers, which is probably bad form.

In all, this was the best trip ever of my four visits here, not just because of the quality of sport, but in part because instead of spending every waking moment at the venue, I actually carved out a bit of time to golf and hang by the pool and go for walks and to the gym. But don’t tell the organizers, or I may not get invited back next year!

Until next time…

A flight map.

My favourite in-flight entertainment. Home again…