By Tana Ross
Billed as the “Greatest Horse Race in the World” and the “Longest Horse Race in the world,” the Mongol Derby is not a challenge just any horse rider is willing to take on.
Indeed, the 1,000 kilometer (more than 630 miles) endurance race over the Mongolian steppe — a diverse, often unforgiving terrain that includes forest, mountains and desert — is so challenging that organizers of the race provide three days of training for the small group of international competitors who qualified to be in the race.
A true adventurist, 33-year-old Justin Nelzen, a-Pinehurst-farrier- turned-endurance athlete, is one of 16 representing five counties who qualified for the second annual derby to start Aug. 7. In fact he is one of the first three Americans ever selected for the 10-day equestrian event. And, while several might be happy just to finish the race, Nelzen’s standard is set a bit higher.
“My goal is not just to complete the race, but to win it,” he said.
With only three years of endurance horse racing under his belt, some might think Nelzen is a risky bet, but his record says otherwise. Not only has the 5-foot, 8-inch, 158-pound, athlete competed and won in a variety of competitions since college, including martial arts, triathlons and marathon running, but his list of wins with his own Arabians in endurance horse racing has garnered the attention of experts in the sport.
“Justin is very accomplished,” Rhita McNair of McNair Internationale, who has trained horses for more than 40 years, said. “I am very impressed with his skills as a rider and as a trainer. He took a mare he bought from me all the way to a world champion.”
Last year, Nelzen also swept first, second and third places in the Hog Scramble, a 30-mile endurance race in Huntsville, on horses he owns and trained. His 7-year-old daughter, Trinity, placed first.
“I didn’t know anything other than to train my horses like I trained myself,” he said. “Someone asked me before my first race what I expected. I told them I expected to win, and I did. I didn’t know any better at the time.”
Excited at just the thought of Nelzen winning the derby, McNair said Justin is very good at reading horses, a skill that is sure to pay off when he selects his Mongolian mounts for the derby.
Longest race is on
Averaging 10 horse endurance races a year Nelzen most recently rode for the Al Kamda royal family in the desert of Dubai, UAE, where he placed fourth in a 100-mile race on an Arabian he had never ridden. But the Mongol Derby is more than 630 miles, tracing one of the 13th century routes Genghis Khan’s supply and communications carriers used — an ancient pony express. Will Nelzen’s experience be enough to carry him over the finish line? Will it be enough to give him the win? He definitely thinks so.
“Last year’s winner finished the race in eight days, I am hoping to do the same or better,” Nelzen said. “But my concerns are not really about my abilities — the Marine Corps trained me well — as much as they are about what I don’t know.”
On the “don’t know” list are sleep, environment and the 25 horses Nelzen will be given to ride. The tradition of Khan’s massive network of horse stations, called the Morin Urtuus, will be implemented for the race. Hosting Mongolian families offering a fresh mount along with a meal of mutton and mare’s milk will be identified every 30 miles or so along the yet-to-be-announced derby route. Because contestants may ride from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. there is no guarantee Nelzen will be at a host family’s yurt at the end of each day.
“If I sleep out, the major concern is wolves and feral dogs and I understand there are horse thieves who would like to steel our mounts,” he said. “The temperature is also a factor. While it gets to upper 80s and 90s during the day, it falls into the 40s at night.”
If the countryside and route don’t offer enough challenge and history then the horses supplied for the derby certainly do. Decedents of the horses that gave Khan and his warriors superior advantage over their enemies and helped establish the Mongol Empire, make up the pool of more than 200 horses the derby supplies.
“This is a land where horses outnumber people seven to one,” Nelzen said. “They are practically worshiped by the people there.”
Riders will get a fresh mount at each station choosing from a collection of the Mongolian horses on a first-come, first-served basis.
“I hope I’ll get there first, have a good selection and be able to choose a good horse,” Nelzen said.
Imagine sizing up a 13-hand, almost pony-sized horse in minutes considering size, confirmation, overall health and disposition — all this without a test drive. Described as being tougher than Rambo on steroids, the small native mounts are a far different ride than the floating Arabians. The Mongolian horses are tightly coupled with eight speeds rather than the familiar four gaits of most horses. While Nelzen is confident of his riding skills, he prays the steeds he rides will be as fast as the Arabians he raises.
Nelzen has collected more than $2,500 for his place in the Mongol Derby. His total expenses top $15,200 including a required charity donation of $1,500. He is accepting donations on his website through PayPal at, www.teamequipro.com.
To learn more about the Mongol Derby and to read updates during the race visit, http://mongolderby.theadventurist.com.
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