Monday, June 16, 2014

Eighteen-Year-Old on $700 Horse Beats the Greats at Old Dominion

by Suzanne Bush

Extreme sports. You can visualize what they are even before you hear the pulsating music that plays along with the TV coverage. The pictures of skateboarders in midair, upside down, defying gravity, are wondrous and startling. How do they stay attached to those skateboards? The key words that define extreme sports: adrenalin and rush.

Imagine an extreme sport where determination replaces adrenalin and strategy replaces rush. Then spread the competition out over a period of time that overlaps one day's breakfast, lunch and dinner. One day's sunrise and sunset. Add some horses and a couple of rivers and mountains. Then give the sport a name that is both a promise and a challenge: endurance racing. It may not be as well-known as other branches of equestrian sports, but it is a clear and compelling connection to Americans' frontier past. Think about the Pony Express riders, racing across mountains, through snow and rain, night and day.

Most Esteemed

Two of the most esteemed endurance races in America are the Tevis Cup, a 100-mile race from Squaw Valley, Nevada to Auburn, California, and the Old Dominion, a 100-mile race through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains. On a recent sweltering June weekend, a young rider from Norristown, Pennsylvania, defeated some of the country's premier endurance riders in the 32nd Old Dominion race. And that was just one of the highlights of Daryl Downs' weekend.

"He's absolutely remarkable! Only 10 horses finished because it was so hot. You talk about world class riders, and he beat them all!" Mike Marino, owner of Red Buffalo Ranch in Montgomery County, described his protégé's accomplishments. "Daryl graduated from high school Friday night, got up at 3:30 in the morning and drove to Virginia." Marino's enthusiasm and obvious pride erupt spontaneously as he talks about the convergence of events that brought a truly unique horse, an exceptional young rider and a seasoned endurance competitor together.

Downs didn't think about horses at all until the summer he was 12 years old. His mother had sent him and his sister to camp at Red Buffalo Ranch. "This kid came to me at 12. He came here, got into our camp and has never left," Marino said. "I converted him into a trail guide." But the trail guide had some reservations.

Slowest Horses

"It took me three years to get up enough confidence to lead the rides," Downs said. "I used to hang back on the slowest horses." Eventually, Downs began leading rides and then got interested in racing. "I started racing two years ago," he said. It wasn't that he was particularly athletic. He was looking for something different. "Nobody else did it, and it was something I was good at. People hear about it and think it's cool." Downs also wrestles. "Wrestling keeps me in shape for riding," and it also gives him something to do with all his energy in the winter.

But what about the horse? That's another story of chances taken and prizes won. "Here's a horse I bought at New Holland for $700," Marino said.

"Mike was getting ready to sell him, and I asked if I could try him," Downs explained as he described how the partnership between a novice endurance rider and a young horse named "Cincinnati" began.

Cincinnati

Marino chose the horse's name with a nod to history, and it turned out to be very prophetic. "It was the name of Ulysses Grant's favorite horse," Marino said. And it was in Virginia that Grant finally defeated General Robert E. Lee to end the Civil War. One of Marino's other great endurance horses is named Traveller, which was Lee's horse. Another Red Buffalo Ranch rider, Devon Hangey, was riding Traveller and keeping up with Downs for most of the race.

Although final times have not been released yet, Downs thinks it took him about 17 hours to finish the race. "The closest anyone was to him was about 10 minutes," Marino said. Not a bad trip for a relative newcomer. "That was my first 100. I did a 55-mile race in April and got a second in that," Downs explained as he described what it was like to ride through the day and into the night. The pit crews meet the riders at the vet stops, where all horses are checked by veterinarians. The veterinarians can pull horses out at any of these checkpoints. The riders might grab a sandwich at the checkpoint, while the pit crew sponges down the horse. Downs' pit crew included his mentor Marino, an experienced and successful endurance rider who dispensed encouragement as well as advice.

"Devon got pulled at 80 miles because her horse was lame. I was with someone a lot for the last five miles. Toward the end, Mike told me what I could be doing to make sure I stayed ahead."

Steady Pace

The race is as much about strategy as it is about speed. In fact, riders get bunched up together and stay together for long distances. "In the middle we were just hanging out, just trying to keep people from catching up to us," Downs explained. "The pace is pretty steady, trotting and cantering."

After nightfall, things change. "It's hard. You don't really know where you're going and you hope the horse knows where he's going. There are glow sticks every hundred yards. That's how you know you're in the right place."

The Old Dominion course follows a trail that is fraught with history. It starts at the Northern Virginia 4H Center near Front Royal, on a plot of ground originally purchased by the United States Army as an ideal place to train military horses. The trail ascends the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then descends to the Shenandoah River. The Indians named the river Shenandoah, "The Daughter of the Stars." Riders cross the river and follow the trail into Fort Valley and the Massanutten Mountains. The trail takes riders back across the river near Sherman's Gap, and then back to the 4H Center.

"When we got out of Sherman's Gap, there were still other people with me." But then Downs and his horse made their move. "Cincinnati went flying up the hill. We stopped and listened for other horses. Then we went flying down the hill. He lost a shoe, and stumbled, but we kept going." Downs crossed the finish line around 1:00 a.m. He remembers the heat, the darkness and the camaraderie he shared with other riders—many of whom were far more experienced. "They say this is the hardest race. It's hard for me to say because I haven't done that many. It was very dangerous weather to be doing stuff like that," he explained. But he's a careful rider who pays attention to conditioning his horse and how his horse is feeling. "We don't ride with a heart monitor. I rely on what the horse is doing—listen to his breathing."

The Old Dominion whetted his appetite for another challenge, and he's looking forward to his next race, the Vermont Moonlight 100 in July.

Downs and Hangey worked together to condition Cincinnati and Traveller for the race. They spent weeks riding the horses up and down the hills in Evansburg Park, near the Red Buffalo Ranch. "We knew they were ready," Downs said. Then he recalled what someone once told him about endurance riding. "The one who trains the best is the one who has the most horse left at the end." This time the one with the most horse left at the end was an 18 year-old who had just graduated from high school, riding a seven-year-old horse named for one of the country's most successful—and controversial—military leaders.

The Pennsylvania Equestrian