After a two-year absence, the world’s longest and toughest horse race, The Mongol Derby, was run twice this year to make up for lost time due to Covid. The first race in July was won by American Deirdre Griffith and South African Willemein Jooste, but the second edition had a more homey feel to it, with two Mongolians among the strong starting pack.
Based on the ancient horse messenger system used by Genghis Khan, in a country where the horse is king, at 1,000 km the Derby is the toughest test on the planet for equestrian endurance riders. While horses are changed roughly every 35 km at checkpoints strung out throughout the country, riders must endure being in the saddle for up to 200 km a day and face the challenges of riding over 28 different semi-wild horses with varying temperaments (and bucking abilities!) Inevitable falls and mishaps happen along the way while navigating through challenging terrain from giant sand dunes to freezing mountain passes.
The 13th Mongol Derby kicked off on August 10th with a truly international field; 46 riders, from 12 different nations, including three from Canada – Adele Dobler, an Air Ambulance helicopter pilot working in Kenya who grew up in rural Alberta; car racing enthusiast Kim Mackenzie; and Stefanie Buettner, a dressage rider living in Switzerland. Of the trio, only Adele Dobler finished the gruelling racing, placing a respectable 15th. Kim and Stefanie finished in the Adventure Category (for folks who didn’t ride the entire race because of injury, misadventure or choice).
Swede Olof Sundstrom took the early lead on day one, and while the weather changed on day two from blistering sunshine to near freezing rains, the lead didn’t. Then disaster befell the leader on day three, as Olof awoke to find his horse missing. He’d chosen to camp out alone to gain extra riding time, rather than spending the night at one of the horse stations. In this scenario riders ‘hobble’ their horses (loosely connecting their front legs together with rope to prevent them being able to roam too far), but Mongolian steeds have a knack of managing to hop away, as Olof found out. Herders found the Swede’s horse, but he had to hitch a ride to the next horse station and sit out a two-hour penalty, his lead gone.
By the end of the day eight riders were vying for the lead, spread out between horse stations 9 and 10.
Day four brought rain, a lot of it, which meant a new set of challenges for competitors, but not enough to separate anyone from the leading pack; as eight riders bedded down that evening, hoping their clothes might be a little drier in the morning.
Day five saw two riders drop away from the leading group, with six making it to horse station 17 together. American and Mongolian riders were showing particularly well with the six made up of Abbi Bell (USA), Bilegbat Erdensukh (Mongolia), Callie King (USA), Erdene-Ochir Uuganbayar (Mongolia) Rochelle Latka (USA) and Victoria Wang (China).
The morning of day six and a new twist for the Mongol Derby. Station 17 was a ‘lottery station’. Normally riders get to pick their horses from a line-up – first come first served – but at lottery stations riders have to ride what they’re given. Despite an initial fall from Rochelle Latka on a particularly lively steed, the first lottery station did little to separate the riders up front, with the Mongolians local skills coming in handy when Erdene-Ochir’s stirrup leather snapped and the two men (riding together) managed to fashion a replacement from a goat leather lead rein.
Stations 19 and 20 were also lottery stations. Riders are allowed two picks and can swap their first horse for another if they’re not happy with their initial decision. Both Abbi Bell and Victoria Wang took advantage of this after their first picks were a little too ‘spirited’, opting for safer, but perhaps slower, rides. This saw them both fall behind the leaders, as did Rochelle Latka, leaving just American Callie King in joint lead with the two Mongolians at horse station 21.
Day seven saw Callie sneak ahead of the Mongolians, with Erdene-Ochir finally hitting the deck as he was thrown off a particularly acrobatic livewire, proving even the locals can get caught out. He quickly made up for his mistake by rapidly catching Callie before overtaking her to take the lead into the evening, with Callie just ahead of Bilegbat, Victoria and Rochelle.
Little separated the top five and everyone wanted to ride fast; if they pushed too hard, however, they risked getting a penalty (added time at the end) if their horse’s heart rate didn’t drop quickly enough, which, at this stage in the race, would inevitably mean throwing away any chance of a win. In the end it was the Asian riders who got this fine balance right, with Erdene-Ochir Uuganbayar managing to keep hold of his overnight lead and 19-year-old Bilegbat Erdensukh and Victoria Wang crossing together in joint second. Callie King took a very well-fought fourth place.