July Mongol Derby Day 6: Run for the hills
Day 6 of the July 2022 Mongol Derby, and the tension is ratcheting up a notch. Chris Walker (CWA) and Patrick Heffron (PHE) are clinging on to their lead by a nose, having made it into HS20 this evening. Deirdre Griffith (DRG), Tiffany Atteberry (TAT) and Willemien Jooste (WJO) are camped between HS19 and HS20, holding off the rest of the front runners right behind them at HS19. Will CWA and PHE keep their cool to shake off the ladies doggedly stalking them across the steppe, or crumble under the pressure? It’s all to play for as we enter the final stages of the Derby, with just eight horse stations left between the leaders and the finish line. But this is no cake walk: the riders have hit the mountains, throwing some major spanners in the works.
The mood on course this morning was a little muted, as riders awoke to a drizzly and cool scene after the Mongolian heavens opened overnight. Ideal racing conditions and not such a problem for those tucked up in cosy gers at horse stations: more of an issue for those opting to camp, at risk of a serious hosing and sleepless night. Would the chasing pack having a very merry time at HS16 last night gain the advantage they need to wrestle the lead from CWA and PHE, left out in the cold on the steppe overnight?
They certainly wasted no time getting down to business. DGR, TAT, WJO and Sean McBride (SMC) blasted off from HS16 as soon as the clock stuck 07:00, motivated by the knowledge that CWA and PHE had left HS16 only 18 minutes before close of riding hours last night. Sam Edney (SED) and Tyler Donaldson-Aitken (TDO) had to watch on in agony as their camping buddies disappeared into the distance while serving a late riding penalty, with Howard Bassingthwaighte (HBA) also leaving at their side. There was plenty of time to make a move: riding hours today were again extended to 12 hours, adding an extra hour of action to allow riders to kick on until 19:00.
By the time CWA and PHE reached HS17 safely this morning looking a little soggy but very much alive and kicking, the chasing pack had closed the gap to 5km. The pressure was on. PHE was in good spirits, wishing a jolly “Top of the morning to ya” to the crew and chuffed with his “epic” mount from the previous leg, although concerned some of his gear appears to be ageing rather faster than he had hoped under the weight of the battering it has taken over the last 6 days. PHE gladly accepted a quick horse vodka shot from the extremely welcoming resident Ser-od family, long-standing Derby favourites having participated for a whopping 14 years. CWA had no time for such frivolities, marching straight to the horse lines with his gear thrown over his shoulder and promptly choosing a champion racehorse from the Ser-od family’s renowned herd to bear him to HS18. PHE was soon mounted (if a little woozy) and the pair charged off to the next stop together, a perfect example of how tackling the Derby as a team can carry you a very long way.
SED, TDO and HBA found themselves mildly perplexed by the mountainous territory between HS16 and HS17. Having followed more or less the same route between most of the previous horse stations, the field veered off in wildly different directions on passing through HS16, navigational skills being tested by the inconveniently hilly landscape. GPS devices were subjected to torrents of verbal abuse, about turns were made, and tempers were tested: Renee Senter (RSE), Julie Wolfert (JWO) and Claire Vile (CVI) found themselves riding around in circles, regretting their decision to strike out from the rest of the field. The trailing pack camped at HS16 have this delight to look forward to tomorrow: for their sake we hope they follow the tracks of those who made it through rather more swiftly.
TDO, SED and HBA did manage to right their GPS to make it HS17 and were cleared and out at 11:28, with HBA picking the herder’s favourite horse from the line-up, hopeful for a speedy leg. Good eye. All three Antipodeans are looking a little worse for wear, but still have a hungry glint in in their eye as they hunt down the leaders.
Swiftly through HS17 and onto their next horses with the swish of a tail, CWA and PHE were clocked thundering towards HS18 at 24km/h. With the gents opting for a northern route, things really started to get interesting as the grimly determined DRG, TAT, WJO and SMC passed through with flying colours just half an hour behind and picked a more southerly path. Route choices could be the factor that clinches the victory for any rider: with all of the frontrunners riding well, something’s got to give.
DRG and WJO also found time for a shot or two for luck before hopping onto their next horses at HS17. TAT experienced a bit of equine melodrama, wisely electing to return her first pick to the horse lines, a fiesty palomino with a bit of an aversion to being saddled. Moving on to a spicy grey, her first attempt at mounting ended in a swift bump back down to earth. Entirely unfazed and clearly tough as nails, she clambered back on and exploded out of HS17, travelling at quite the pace to HS18. This lady has an eye for the firecrackers.
Shortly behind them came Kathy Gabriel (KGA) and Annie Hackett (AHA), currently riding as a pair. AHA is still trying to make up for the time she lost with her lame horse yesterday, while KGA continues to make impressive progress ruthlessly picking off riders ahead of her as she powers up the field. KGA paired up with an old friend today at HS17: she picked Naadam off the line, a horse she rode in the 2018 Derby and belonging to event manager Erik, gifted to him by Ser-od. He flew with her to HS18. What a reunion.
PHE and CWA made it to HS18 in startling time, delighted with the unbelievably fast yet biddable horses on offer at HS17. Hitting their rhythm at horse changeovers (CWA running the show with military efficiency while chastising PHE for genial dilly-dallying), the duo were remounted and out in a flash, but the gap was dwindling. They were barely out of sight before TAT, WJO and DGR were hoofing it out on their fresh mounts, one SMC lighter: having kept up with the ladies since leaving HS16 this morning, he received a vet penalty and was left behind, detained for two hours on the ground. SED also fell victim to the vets at SH18, and was forced to join SMC on the penalty bench while watching TDO and HBA tack up and ride on without her.
Speaking of penalties, riders must sit out all penalties by HS27, the second last station on the race, at the latest. This means that they can choose to ride on from the horse station at which they receive a penalty up until HS27, but everyone must cross the finish line with all penalties served. This ensures that whoever crosses the line first will be the actual winner of the race, but throws up some fascinating tactical decisions for the riders: will they push on knowing they have a penalty to serve hoping to open up enough of a gap in the meantime to maintain their advantage, or sit it out immediately and try to chase those ahead of them back down?
Especially critical at the front of the race, as PHE incurred a 2 hour vet penalty to at HS20 and SMC and SED just couldn’t stand sitting still for too long at HS18 and still have 87 and 95 mins to sit respectively somewhere along the course, while KGA received a third vet penalty today too meaning she is now on her last strike: 4 vet penalties and you’re out. Could this be the factor which finally separates out the riders tussling for the victory?
PHE and CWA’s navigational nous was enough to keep them ahead of the chasers, flying through HS19 only 5km ahead in 20 minutes and 17 minutes respectively, finding a serious groove. Camping out as HS20 tonight, they remain ahead of girl gang TAT, WJO and DRG, camped out between HS19 and HS20. Just behind them at HS19, AHA, HBA, KGA, SED, SMC and TDO are getting a good night’s rest in before another hard day’s racing tomorrow.
The rest of the field are to be found sprinkled between HS17 and HS16 this evening. Ashton Garner (AGA) and Kristin Carpenter (KCA) spent the morning a little navigationally misdirected having executed some zig zags departing their campsite with a friendly local herder family somewhere between HS13 and HS14, but soon found their way and were off to HS14.
Iona Hutley (IHU) camped out by herself last night, and found herself heading to HS13 approximately 2km ahead of Madeleine Motelay (MMO), Alexa Towersey (ATO) and Tobias Endress (TEN), also camped on the same leg last night. At HS14, she picked up her favourite horse of the race so far: passed with a massive grin plastered across her face, she gesticulated wildly at her treasured mount, who had apparently sprouted wings and “flew” her with her along the leg. MMO was also spotted joggling along cheerily en route to HS14, while Flurina Hammer (FHA) and Sarah Endress (SEN) managed to regain contact with Kayleigh Davenport (KDA) and Heidi Falzon (HFA) at HS15. RSE, JWO, Lena Haug (LHA), Michael Field (MFE) and CVI were grouped together trundling steadily towards HS15 from their overnight camping spot at HS14, 5km behind the others. Gabrielle Tigan (GTI) camped out last night to try and maximise her gains made during the day, but unfortunately lost that advantage when she misplaced her vet card somewhere along the way to HS15 and was slapped with a 1 hour penalty.
HFA rolled into HS16 on an appaloosa sporting a wonderfully natural hairstyle today before befriending one of our fabulous interpreters. Quite the show was being put on by the resident HS16 herders practising their traditional wrestling, a Mongolian favourite, who also turned out to be exceptional cooks. Riders were spotted lingering for a little longer than usual on their third helping, curiously disinterested in the waiting horses on the lines. Just as well they were good ones: SEN and HFA rode out together on some fine looking beasts.
MFE gained a lot of respect today from his local hosts when spotted following Mongolian customs by riding three times for luck round an ovoo (Mongolian shrines made of rocks dotted around the steppe), between HS16 and HS17. Traditions safely respected, he shot towards HS17 on an absolute machine of a pony, leaving six riders behind him for dust as he strolled in alone and buzzing from a thrilling ride.
By the time SEN, HFA, FHA and KDA arrived, the scene was a little chaotic. A herder was galloping furiously around the horse lines attempting to collar a loose horse, just as the group rode in. Nothing to see here, ladies.
Alexandra Fetterman (AFE) had a heart-stopping day, after being targeted by an overly protective ger dog en route to HS15. A short chase later, she made off unscathed with a burst of speed.
In other news, Bianca Farmas-Griffith (BFA) and Allison Kohlberg (AKO) have elected to join Adventure Category. They accepted a vehicle assisted carry forward today, but never fear: they will rejoin the riders later on along the course. Cesca Green (FRG) made a valiant attempt to get back in the saddle today at HS15, but strolled back in shortly after having found her horse wasn’t much of a fan of solo adventures. Points for trying.
It’s not just the riders putting themselves on the line out there. Vet Nico took a thumping to the knee today while inspecting an ungrateful equine. Medic Sarah assessed his lameness at 3/5, improving to 1/5 following administration of some NSAIDs. Good show.
We’ll be back tomorrow as the action heats up in the final stages of the race. At the moment, things feel too close to call…
Day 6 Close of Play
HS20: CWA, PHE
Between HS19 – HS20: DGR, TAT, WJO
HS19: AHA, HBA, KGA, SED, SMC, TDO
HS17: AGA, FHA, GTI, HFA, KDA, LHA, MFE, SEN
Between HS16 – HS17: AFE, CVI, JWO, KCA, MKE, PGO, RSE, WHE
HS16: ATO, EAI, IHU, MMO, MFI, SBE, TEN, WOS (BDO, BFA, NTA, SRY – Adventure)
Blood Wagon (Adventure Class): AKO, CCA, FGR, AKO
Retired: JON, NON, BST, PRA
Late riding penalties: AHA (74 mins)
Vet penalties (2 hours): KGA, PHE, SED, SMC
Lost vet card: GTI (1 hour)
Photo credits: Louise Crosbie, Eledv-Ochir Bayarsaihan, Stevie Delahunt, Tulgaa Skizz, Shari Thompson, Erik Cooper.
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