by Francis LaBelle, for the TRF (October 12, 2018)

Kelsey Riley had not ridden a horse in two years. At one time, riding was a part of her everyday life, and it was her love for Thoroughbreds that made her decide to get back in the saddle. Always ready for a challenge, she decided she wanted to do more for them. She set a seemingly lofty goal to travel to the other side of the world to compete in and finish The Mongol Derby, dubbed “The Longest and Toughest Horse Race in the World.”

The Mongol Derby, which is held in mid-August, brought 44 international riders to the remote Mongolian Steppe to re-trace one of the paths of Genghis Khan’s 13th-century messengers in what was the Pony Express long before the Pony Express. In fact, it was the Pony Express before there was a New World. Now, some centuries later, Riley and her fellow riders were set for the 10th running of the Mongol Derby. They had up to 10 days to complete the 630-mile race aboard the semi-feral Mongol horses. These horses live outdoors all year, in temperatures that range from well below freezing to nearly 90 degrees. They are sturdy, small—12-14 hands on average— and they have not changed in centuries.

At 3 million, the Mongol horses outnumber Mongolia’s human population. They are mostly self-reliant, wandering the wilderness for water and to graze, but they are managed by nomadic people. Given the location, the rules of competition and the method of transportation, Riley’s journey was certain to be an amazing one. After eight grueling days and multiple horse changes along the way, she finished midway through Day 8 along with fellow riders, 29-year-old Christine Roberts from PA, and 44-year-old Eion Kemp of New Zealand. The threesome placed 16th of the 36 finishers.

In addition to reaching her goal of completing the toughest horse race in world, Riley also managed to raise more than $17,000 for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) Second Chances program at the Blackburn Correctional Facility in Lexington, KY. “I had heard about the Mongol Derby from a contact in the racing industry,” Riley said in a telephone interview from England, where, as International Editor for the Thoroughbred Daily News (TDN), she is covering the Tattersalls Yearling Sales through October 19. “I had wanted to get back to riding, and the more I learned about the Mongol Derby, well, it hit me square in the face that I wanted to do this.”

Riley applied and was accepted to compete in September 2017. She started a GoFundMe Page to raise money and gain more exposure for the TRF as she chronicled her unfolding adventure for the TDN and on social media.“The TRF is an incredible cause,” she said. “Second Chances helps former racehorses that no longer have athletic careers, but it also helps people. That was very appealing to me. “We raised almost $5,000 in the first few days, and then it picked up a lot of traction. And it just kept coming. The generosity of the people who donated was overwhelming.”

Encouraged by the response, Riley immediately began her own preparation for the arduous Mongol Derby. “I work out regularly and stay in pretty good shape, but I started `hacking’ to get used to the saddle again and to get more fit,” Riley said. “I had never exercised racehorses before, but I started doing that six days a week for trainer Jimmy Corrigan.” Riley began to work horses at Margaux Farm, owned by fellow Canadians Jim and Susan Hill, and later, Riley worked at the Thoroughbred Center in Lexington. KY. On her days off from the TDN, she went on long rides at polo farms, going an additional 20-25 miles after working the racehorses. Finally, she took the 19-hour flight to China, transferred to Mongolia’s Capital, Ulaanbaatar, and took an eight-hour bus ride out to the Steppe, where she was briefed for three days before the Mongol Derby. “We were allowed to bring a kit that could only weigh 11 pounds,” Riley said. “I had never camped before, so I had to figure out what was essential and what didn’t weigh a lot. We had to weigh everything down to the gram. I had a very light, down sleeping bag, a change of clothes in case I got wet, a medical kit and other supplies like duct tape, zip ties and paracord. You are basically on your own, and if anything breaks, you have to figure out how to repair it, so the duct tape came in really handy. I also used it to tape up my feet each morning to prevent chafing after they’d gotten wet.”

The 2018 Mongol Derby got off to a bumpy start. Originally scheduled to start on August 8, it was delayed a day because of a glitch in the satellite tracking system that followed the riders through the desolate terrain. And when another rider’s half chap zipper busted, Riley’s Tape duct tape came in handy. “There was one rider, Eliza Allan, whose stirrup broke,” Riley said. “She had to go to a nomad family and managed to buy Mongolian stirrups – without the assistance of a translator. At the end of the Derby, all you had to do was look at your equipment to see how hard a race it was. I had some very good quality stirrup leathers that wound up full of holes.” The riders changed horses every 25 miles. Riley rode 29 different ones during the race. “They had 45-50 horses on these horse lines and it was first come, first served,” Riley said.  “So, if you got to the station first, you had the first choice. The first day or two, I tried to get the fastest horses. They were fun, but they were flying through swamps and straight up and down mountains. Towards the end, I started looking for horses that maybe weren’t the fastest, but were a steady ride and could just get me to the finish line.”

Racing strategy and equine safety were critical elements in Kelsey’s success. “We had it all: open plains, mountains, swamps and sand dunes.  It is a race, but you had to run a smart race because you have to take care of your horse. The horses are strictly vetted and each time you changed horses, the vets made sure that the horses were hydrated, sound, and in good shape. If the vets weren’t satisfied, the rider had to sit a two-hour time penalty.”

The winners of the 2018 Mongol Derby completed the race is about six and a half days. Riley came back in seven and a half. It was a remarkable finish, given the pre-race travel hours spent on airplanes and a bus. The last finishers were done the following day. “I started out for the experience and the adventure,” Riley said. “At the end of it, I was very sore and hungry. But I also saw some amazing sights, met amazing people and I was proud that I was able to finish where I did.”

“People who had competed in the Mongol Derby told me that it would be the worst and best experience of my life. Now, I understand what they meant.”


Read more about Kelsey’s incredible adventure through her blog postings on her GoFundMe Site

Learn more about the TRF Second Chances Program at the Blackburn Correctional Facility

Watch the Godolphin Team video about Kelsey and TRF Second Chances

Follow Kelsey on Twitter @kelseynrileyTDN

Donate now to follow Kelsey’s support for this Second Chances Program in Lexington.