HINCKLEY, Ohio -- Say "derby" in the sporting world, and it's "Kentucky" that immediately comes to mind. But the world's most grueling horse derby takes place far from Churchill Downs. It's run in the Mongolian Steppe and as we found out a local woman is among a small group of international riders brave enough to try it.
Stephanie "Stevie" Murray has ridden most of her life, but much of it has been in the show ring on her dependable mount Gilbert. Murray's horseback riding experience is about as far removed from the Mongol Derby as you can get.
" Murray said when we met up with her at Horse Haven Stables in Hinckley, which is here she has come for training.
The Mongol Derby is only in its 5th year, although its inspiration dates back to the 13th century. Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan established the legendary postal route across the rugged grasslands of Mongolia. The Mongol Derby incorporates 25 horse stations and rest stops throughout the 1000 km (621.371 mile) route. Along the course, riders have the option of staying with local nomads, or camping out. In 2010, the Guinness Book of World Records officially designated the Mongol Derby title of the longest multi-horse race.
Risk of injury to the rider is high, as Murray is keenly aware. During the trek she'll ride up to 25 different horses. The riders have not ridden any beforehand to test them out, and each of the horses is "semi-wild". They will travel through remote and unmarked territory, endure harsh elements including heat and blistering winds, physical pain and exhaustion. Murray has befriended a 2013 Derby rider who dropped out for saddle sores so severe he needed stitches. Rules also restrict riding hours allowed each day. And stiff penalties are assessed at each outpost if a horse comes in overworked.
Murray is one of 40 riders chosen among roughly 400 who applied. "It was just kind of a pipe dream and I thought well I will just interview to see if I can get a spot. They interviewed me, they interviewed all my horse trainers and they gave me the green light," Murray says adding that her love for travel, camping and riding experience helped seal the deal.
Her training regime is not for the feint of heart. A typical training day starts with a 5 -6 mile run. Murray then heads to Horse Haven where she will ride 5 to 6 different horses, most of them ponies to get accustomed to the size of the horses in Mongolia. Then Murray heads to her own barn where she rides her horse Gilbert. On a work day she'll then head to work at her job bartending. On days off, Murray will spend some time her husband before ending the day with another run. "Being physically fit is really important just because it helps you do anything in life. I mean you are doing wall squats almost for 11 hours a day, standing on your horse so you don't want to be putting the weight on the horse. You want to be up off their backs so they can run. A lot of physical training; running too because sometimes you get get separated from your horse and they might take off," Murray explains. The distance between the outposts is roughly 25 miles. She wants to be ready in case she must have to run the distance, on foot, in case she gets thrown.
The training program comes courtesy of Solange Ellis, owner of Horse Haven Stables. Ellis had never heard of the Mongol Derby until Murray mentioned it. "I think my mind just kind of stopped for 15 seconds and had to reset itself. You have to tell me everything because I am now going to start teaching you in a completely different fashion," Ellis recalls of her first conversation with Murray.
Ellis says training Murray for the Derby has been one of the most challenging assignments in her career, and one of the most rewarding. "Stevie has a really indomitable spirit. I've seen her mildly unhappy that I am making her ride the tiny pony bareback again – because she has fallen off 3 times. But other than that she's been in really good spirits. She's been up for everything I've offered to do with her. And we talk a lot about logistics. What is she going to carry? What can we ask previous participants? You know the internet has been wonderful, that we can talk to people from New Zealand. And we can ask did you encounter this? Did you encounter that? I think that Stevie is an amazing athlete," Ellis says.
In addition to training for the derby each rider must raise funds to participate in it. The cost is roughly $12,000. In addition to the cost each rider must also raise money for 2 charities. One is chosen by the race organizers. It is Cool Earth, a charity that works alongside indigenous villages to stop rain forest destruction. Each rider also chooses their own charity. Murray has chosen the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Murray is a newlywed. She says her new husband is 100% behind her efforts to compete in the Mongol Derby. "When I said I wanted to do the race he said do 'whatever it takes'. So all our money for our honeymoon has gone to this and he can't even go. He said he doesn't care, he's just happy I can go. I am really lucky," Murray says. Fundraising is helping foot the bill too. Murray has set up a GoFundMe page to help with donations.
Murray will leave on July 28th and the race begins on August 3rd. Murray considers herself a competitor, but won't be crushed if she doesn't win the race. Her goal is to finish, and enjoy the scenery, experience and the people along the way. "Winning the title will not help my future. People who win don't normally get to stay with the nomadic herding families. They just plow through and are done in 7 days. I'd like the whole 10 day experience," Murray shares.
Stephanie Murray Profile and Fundraising Site: http://www.gofundme.com/2jwfxs