It’s been called the “Greatest Horse Race in the World” and the “Longest Horse Race in the world.” Either way, 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.
Nelzen 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 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.
“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.
So, who knows? He could win. Wouldn’t that be very very cool.
“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.
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.
We hope so too. I’ll let you know how he does.