True, an Arabian can't run with a thoroughbred—it is more than 10 seconds slower over a mile—but in an all-Arabian field, will the bettor care? "People love to watch them," says Ruth Duncan of Ocala, Fla., who is actively involved in Arabian racing in the Sunshine State. "They can't believe it: this great field of color coming around the turn, tails up, heads up. Arabians look very flamboyant when they race. They try just as hard as the thoroughbreds, but with those short little legs, they don't get there as fast."
"Our biggest problem is the announcers," says Joe Gorajec, director of racing for the International Arabian Horse Association. "They can't pronounce some of those names." A quick flip through the pages of Arabian Horse World gives one an idea of the dilemma. And here they come: Wielki Szlem has Ru Melika Sabbah by a head. Daalda Fiolek's coming up strong. It's Mizan Taj Halim on the rail. Ru Melika Sabbah...Mizan Taj Halim...and out of nowhere the winner is...Abraxas Maarofic! The race would have to be three miles long just to identify the field.
Actually, the longer the better as far as the Arabian is concerned. When you cut through all the mascara and Vaseline, the silkiness of the coat and the delicate, expressive face, the Arabian horse is one of the world's toughest, most durable creatures. Do you think that Genghis Khan, George Washington, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant rode Arabians because they were pretty? Or Napoleon? (Well, maybe Napoleon.) Or President Ronald Reagan, for that matter, who owns four of the critters?
The one thing, besides looking like a movie star—the title role in The Black Stallion was played by an Arabian—that the breed does better than any other is to run long distances. Want to race fast or jump high? Get a thoroughbred. Want to trot like the dickens? A standardbred's for you. Looking showy is your fancy? How about an American saddle horse? Cutting cattle? Try a quarter horse. But if you want a horse that will run you till your fanny sizzles, the Arabian is the ticket.
"There's a special horse for every job," says Ruth Waltenspiel of Healdsburg, Calif., owner of four pure Arabians and two part-Arabs. "The Arabian's highest and best use originally was to gallop across the desert, rape, rob and plunder, then gallop back to get the boss to bed."
Waltenspiel is a former director of the American Endurance Ride Conference, an organization started in 1971 that now numbers more than 2,000 members and sanctioned some 533 races in 1985 at distances ranging from 25 to 150 miles. The vast majority of those races were won by Arabians. At last year's Tevis Cup, for example, a 100-mile super bowl of endurance rides that is raced over an old gold-miners' trail through the High Sierra of California, 17 of the top 20 finishers were Arabians and the remaining three were half-Arab. Mules, thoroughbreds, camels, mustangs, you name it—the Arabian will leave them in the dust.
"The Arabian you see in horse shows and auctions and the Arabian you see in endurance rides are no more alike than cheese and chalk," says Matthew Mackay-Smith, a veterinarian from Whitepost, Va., who both rides in and monitors endurance races. "Traveling long distances at relatively slow speeds is what the animal is biologically adapted to do. Arabians have a large heart size relative to their weight. Their feet and legs are very durable, fragile as they look. They have lots of slow-twitch muscle fibers and a high surface area relative to their mass, which means they are built more like a radiator than a boiler. They're designed to release heat."
You know that high, elegant way an Arabian carries its tail? Elegant, shmelegant. It's just another way of cooling the furnace.
"Whether a horse is pretty or not means absolutely nothing to me," says Waltenspiel, who has ridden her Arabians more than 10,000 miles since becoming involved in endurance riding in the 1960s. "I'm interested in a sound horse that is cheerful in its work. The motto of our sport is: To finish is to win. The whole thing is to bring both yourself and your horse in feeling good."
Feeling full of ginger, as the show folk like to say. It's an attitude that is somewhat closer to the Bedouin spirit that gave the Arabian its character than, say, a five-year depreciation and the sale of an unborn foal. "People call me up all the time and ask, 'What do you think of Arabians as an investment?' " says Waltenspiel, who buys her Arabians broken to ride for anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500. "I tell them, 'If any of those smart-talking guys gets you to put up your money, you'd better be prepared to lose it.' Investment? Sure, Arabians are a good investment. An investment in pleasure, good health, exercise and family fun.