Day 1 … JK! Race Start Delayed by Technical Difficulties, Acts of God

Imagine loading up a starting gate with 44 mega-fit, ready-to-run Thoroughbred racehorses. Their haunches are coiled and nostrils flared as they await the bell that will signal their synchronized explosion onto the track.

But the bell never comes. At the very last moment, the horses are all taken out and led back to their stalls. The race has been postponed.

That was pretty much the mood yesterday at Mongol Derby start camp. Between an undisclosed “technical difficulty” and an apocalypse-calibur storm replete with flooding and marble-sized hail, the powers that be opted to delay the start of the race until dawn Thursday — that’s Wednesday evening for North American followers.

All dressed up with nowhere to go: Our heroine Jocelyn Pierce looking way too excited about this thing. Photo courtesy of the Mongol Derby.
Storm’s a brewin’. Photo courtesy of the Mongol Derby.
Riders of the storm? Or … maybe let’s just try again tomorrow. Photo courtesy of the Mongol Derby.
No run-in sheds or warm, cozy box stalls in Mongolia. Sorry, ponies!

Erik Cooper from the race crew managed to dispatch a message to me from start camp before losing service again. That message was: “So basically biblical [poop]show over here.”

Sounds like the Derby, traditionally a 10-day stretch of sheer chaos, is off to a proper start.

Bummer for the riders, all of whom are surely chomping at the bit to get out there on the steppe. But a bottle of vodka, a deck of cards and a warm, dry urtuu seem like a reasonable and pleasant alternative to getting struck by lightning on day 1.

Even bigger bummer for this goat, who is seeking shelter between two race vehicles. Somebody please invite this little buddy into their urtuu! Photo courtesy of the Mongol Derby.

In lieu of live race updates, the Derby’s chief Twitterer (follow @mongolderbylive) made the most of the situation, using the day instead to help us get to know this year’s riders. We might as well follow suit! In addition to Jocelyn, there’s a diverse contingent of North American riders to cheer for amidst the 44-strong international field. Allow us to introduce:

  • Carol Federighi / 58 / Takoma Park, Maryland / USA — Government lawyer, endurance rider, ride-and-tie competitor. Always wondered if she could ride the day after a 100-mile ride; now she will find out.
  • Christine Roberts / 29 / Dallas, Pennsylvania / USA — She grew up riding in competitive trail and made the switch to endurance racing in 2007. Enjoys martial arts, competitive shooting, travel and horses.
  • Devan Horn / 24 / Houston, Texas / USA — A third-time Derby participant, she was runner-up after cross the line first in 2013 and then fell ill during the 2015 race.
  • Dori Hertel / 48 / Kingwood, Texas, USA — Vet for 23 years. Done mainly what she calls “pleasure adventure” riding including endurance and polo. Owns and breeds Quarter Horses.
  • Heather ‘Flash’ Accardo / 37 / Prairieville, Louisiana / USA — Grew up showing Arabs in every event possible and now endurance is her love. Is raising money for her charity Heros and Horses.
  • Jeannette Lazzaro / 29 / Virginia Beach, Virginia / USA — Started riding at six months old and grew up riding in Pony Club and eventing. Worked in aviation and in her spare time rescued and trained a Quarter Horse.
  • Jocelyn Pierce / 31 / Rockville, Maryland / USA — Outdoor adventure freak, three-day eventer and an editor at Practical Horseman magazine. Is eager to immerse herself in one of the last surviving nomadic cultures.
  • Joel Scholz / 44 / Florida / USA — USAF veteran and VP of sales for a mobile medical technology company. He and his fiancé Nicolette are dedicating their entire wedding registry to the Derby’s official charity Cool Earth.
  • Kelsey Opstad / 27 / Anchorage, Alaska / USA — A commercial fishing captain and paramedic who grew up competing in dressage but has since found a love of travel and other sports.
  • Kelsey Riley / 29 / Lexington, Kentucky / USA (Canadian) — Not ridden a horse in two years prior to applying, thought this would be perfect to get back into it. Raising money for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.
  • Madison Smith / 28 / San Francisco, California / USA — Small business owner taking her second whack at the Derby after a bump on the head and some breaks in 2016. Raising money for the Homeless Prenatal Program.
  • Matthew Graham / 57 / Washington / USA — Mechanical engineer, yoga teacher, freelance outdoors and adventure writer. Started riding horses 25 years ago. Is racing in honor of his late wife.
  • Michael Gascon / 28 / Poplarville, Mississippi / USA — Fifth generation horse trainer who has dedicated his life to the way of the horse. “Ready to go on an adventure for the ages!”
  • Nicolette Merle-Smith / 30 / Florida / USA — A professional event rider, she is racing with her fiancé Joel, with whom she trains up their homebred sport horses.
  • Pamela Karner / 64, Ithaca, New York / USA — Recently retired large animal veterinarian. Has practiced for over 30 years. Is an endurance rider, veterinarian and ride manager in the U.S. and Australia.
  • Tamara Beckstead / 54 / Rockwood, Ontario / Canada — A small animal vet who feels most alive atop a horse. Eventing has earned Tamara the nickname “Teflon Girl” by her coach.
Happy honeymoon, Joel Scholz and Nikki Merle-Smith! Race organizers report, “Poor chap has been puking the rainbow. But here he is, ready to ride!” Meanwhile fiancé Nikki kindly donated her GPS navigator to Pakistani rider Saif Noon, as the airline lost his gear so he is riding in all borrowed kit. Now Nikki has got to stick Joel like glue … if they can survive the next 10 days as a couple, surviving a lifetime of matrimony should be a piece of cake. Photos courtesy of the Mongol Derby.

A record North American representation! I wonder how many of them read my race account from last year and thought, “Well, if that ding-dog can finish the race, I surely can, too.” Fairplay, my fellow countrymen, and I hope you’re right. Last year only about half of the North American contingent completed, with a broken rib, a shattered collarbone, a sprained ankle, hypothermia and a concussion accounting for the five DNFs. Here’s hoping for a more positive survival percentage in 2018.

Sweet dreams, riders, and savor this bonus night of rest. You’re gonna need it. 

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 

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