You remember the Oklahoma land rush scene from 1992 adventure drama Far and Away? You know, way back in the good old days before Tom Cruise went completely off the rails?
Oh yeah, you remember that scene. A mob of horses and riders looking as though they’ve been shot out of a cannon, carriages turning over left and right, chaos everywhere, mega-dramatic soundtrack. Well that’s basically what the start of the Mongol Derby is like.
After a 24-hour delay on account of torrential monsoon rain and satellite issues (Russian meddling?), the start gun was finally fired and the 10th edition of the Mongol Derby got underway. Forty-five equine rocket ships bolted across the start line and a cheer went up from those of us following the race via live tracking -- at long last, those little dots were on the move!
Maryland endurance rider Carol Federighi took the early-bird lead but it wasn’t long before another American, Devan Horn of Texas, went bombing past her. At just 24 years old this is already Devan’s third crack at the Derby -- she crossed the line first in 2013 but finished runner-up on account of a vet penalty, then fell deathly (no exaggeration) ill during the 2015 race.
Now she’s back with, as Derby headquarters put it, “experience, guts galore and a burning quest for redemption,” and came out guns blazing. On day 1 she covered a jaw-dropping distance of 180 kilometers (112 miles), almost a fifth of the race, and at day’s end was nearly an entire leg ahead of any other rider.
This year’s race has 25 horse stations (HS), to which riders must navigate via GPS. There they refill their water, maybe refuel with some goat lo mein, and switch horses, selecting their own from the tie line first-come first-serve. It’s tough, if not impossible, to tell the superstar steeds from the ones who’d rather just ditch you and take a nap, and a sluggish speedometer can make or break your day. While a fast horse can burn through a leg of the Derby in two-and-a-half hours, a slowpoke can easily set you back four or five hours and torch your legs from Thelwell pony style kicking.
Practical Horseman Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce demonstrated today that she didn’t come all the way to Mongolia for a leisurely trail ride and seems to be choosing wisely at the pony buffets! She really got on with it out there, hanging with the top of the field throughout the day and finishing in the top 15.
Horsemanship is an integral element of the Derby, and having a nose for a good mount is only part of it. Each horse must pass a veterinary inspection after being ridden to ensure that they haven’t been pushed too hard and have been cooled down property. Offenses incur time penalties, which riders must sit out at the horse station. Read more about the penalty system here.
Today’s leg had a big of a “Tough Mudder” vibe on account of flooding leftover from yesterday. There were a few assorted hiccups: some naughty ponies, a few tumbles and a handful of unintentional detours. One rider, Gemma Ractliffe from the UK, was checked out by medics after being bucked off between HS2 and HS3 but had no visible signs of injury and was carried forward to HS3, hopefully to return to the race tomorrow.
At the end of the day, riders have the choice of staying at a race-supported HS horse station or taking their chances to camp out or (hopefully) get invited into a family urtuu between stations before cut-off time. It looks like Jocelyn and a handful of her comrades opted for the latter.
Endurance is the name of the game in the Mongol Derby, and after day 1 we’ve barely made a dent in this year’s race. In the Derby nothing is certain except this: From glory to defeat and everything in between, there’s much, much more to come.
Practical Horseman Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce is competing in the Mongol Derby, a 600-mile expedition considered the longest and toughest horse race in the world, Aug. 8-27. Here’s how to follow the action, sponsored by Mane 'n Tail and SmartPak:
• Visit Practical Horseman for daily race recaps and Jocelyn updates from 2017 Derby finisher Leslie Wylie
• Follow Jocelyn’s progress live via her GPS tracker, read official reports via the Derby website, and follow @mongolderbylive on Twitter
• Tune in for Derby Dot Watch Party podcasts presented by Horse Radio Network in partnership with Practical Horseman, broadcast live nightly at 8 p.m. EST