After a two year absence, the “world’s 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 saw two Mongolians triumph.

Credit: Shari Thompson

At 1,000km the Derby is billed the toughest test on the planet for endurance riders. While horses are changed roughly every 35km, at checkpoints strung out throughout the country, riders must endure being in the saddle for up to 200km a day and face over 28 different semi-wild horses, navigating through challenging terrain, from giant sand dunes to freezing mountain passes.

The 13th Mongol Derby kicked off on 10 August with 46 riders from 12 different nations, with Swede Olof Sundstrom taking the early lead on day one.

Credit: Shari Thompson

On day three, Olof woke 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. While herders found the Swede’s escaped horse, he had to hitch a ride to the next horse station and sit out a two-hour penalty. 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, which meant a new set of challenges for competitors, but not enough to separate anyone from the leading pack. The following day saw two riders drop away from the leading group, with six making it to horse station 17 together. American and Mongolian riders where 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).

Credit: Shari Thompson

The morning of day six and a new twist for the Derby. Station 17 was a ‘lottery station’. Normally riders get to pick their horses from a line-up, but at lottery stations, riders have to ride what they’re given.

“This levels the playing field somewhat, and, to be frank, makes the whole thing a damn sight more exciting as a spectator sport,” said Tom Morgan, founder of organiser, The Equestrianists.

Credit: Shari Thompson

Despite an initial fall from Rochelle, on a particularly lively steed, the first lottery station did little to separate the riders up front.

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 and Victoria, took advantage of this after their first picks were a little too ‘spirited’, opting for alternative, quieter rides. This saw them both fall behind the leaders, as did Rochelle, leaving just Callie in joint lead with the two Mongolians at horse station 21.

Credit: Shari Thompson

Day seven saw Callie sneak ahead of the Mongolians, but Erdene-Ochir caught up Callie, before overtaking her to take the lead into the evening.

With only three legs of racing left on the final day, at least for those at the head of the race, little separated the top five, but was the Asian riders, Erdene-Ochir  who secured victory with Bilegbat Erdensukh and Victoria crossing in joint second. Callie was fourth.

“It’s brilliant for the race to get its first outright Mongolian win and I hope riders from around the world continue to get inspired by The Mongol Derby,” added Tom. “Life in general is overtly manicured, we need a bit of toughness and chaos to dig deep and find out what we are really capable of.”

Lead image by Shari Thompson

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