South African horseback adventurer Barry Armitage has won the ninth edition of the gruelling Mongol Derby, the world’s longest endurance horse race.
The 51-year-old Armitage crossed the finish line in record time late last month, sharing line honours with Australian Olympian Ed Fernon after an intense race to the finish.
The 2017 edition saw 42 riders from around the world conquer one of the toughest endurance races on the planet, spanning nine days and 1 020km of rugged remote Mongolian steppes.
This is not a race for the faint-hearted, testing the limits of each competitor’s survival skills, horsemanship and sheer endurance.
The race recreates Genghis Khan’s ancient horse messenger system in epic fashion. “Over 13 hours in the saddle every day for a week is a great physical challenge.
You spend much of the race alone with your horses on the endless steppes chasing an unseen rider ahead and you simply need to will yourself to keep going,” said Armitage.
The Mongolian horses used for the race are semiwild and kept so by the nomadic herders to best survive the harsh winters and attacks by wolves that roam the steppes.
“They can be pretty lively when fresh and more than a few riders get thrown at the outset of a stage,” said Armitage.
Armitage is a three-time veteran of this spectacular event, having competed in 2011, when he and riding partner Joe Dawson shot a television series The Ride – Race Across the Steppe about their exploits, initially screened on SABC 3 in 2012, and more recently, this year, on etv.
He also competed in 2012, crossing the line in a dead heat for first after a final all-out gallop with Irish jump jockey Doni Fahey, only to lose due because of a veterinary penalty.
Over the years, South African riders have dominated the race, with four previous winners coming from South Africa – more than any other country.
And this year’s race was no different.
The final two days were intense as Armitage and Fernon closed in on race leader, fellow South African Jakkie Mellet.
Mellet failed the penultimate vet check, earning himself a two-hour time penalty. This put Armitage and Fernon in the lead, giving them the opportunity to cross the finish line victorious.
Horses are changed and checked by a veterinarian at the end of every 40km stage and with 28 stages, penalties for overworking the horses can have a serious impact on the leaderboard.
“My aim was to ride as efficiently as possible, to look after my horses, judging what each had left in the tank during the stage and bring them into the vet check fit and healthy,” said Armitage.
“My best moment of the race? Passing Ed on the last stage to be out front alone by a few hundred metres,” he said.
Sweltering conditions made the going tough and after some initial sparring in the first few kilometres of the final stage, Armitage and Fernon decided to save their horses in the heat and ride across the finish line together.
“Winning this inspiring race brings no financial reward, simply the kudos of winning what the New York Times rated in the top 10 toughest endurance races on the planet,” said Armitage.
Guinness World Records calls it the world’s longest and toughest horse race.
This spectacular testament to the human and equine spirit has inspired Armitage to co-found Rockethorse, the company behind Race the Wild Coast, a 350- km endurance horse race held a along the breathtaking scenery of the Eastern Cape, from Port Edward to Kei Mouth. The race is due to be run in October 2018.
The inaugural race was held in 2016, and was won by a South African rider, Monde Kanyana.
He beat an international field of largely Mongol Derby veterans, including 2014-winner Australian Sam Jones, who finished second.
Kanyana is a Mongol Derby veteran, having finished sixth in 2013, winning the best horsemanship award.