Old Boys go the distance in Mongol Derby

20 Sep 2022

Old Boys Hugh (11556) and Ben (11867) Dampier-Crossley have flown across the globe to line up in the world’s longest and toughest horse race – the Mongol Derby.

Both brothers, aged in their early 40s, are sheep and beef farmers in Hurunui, North Canterbury, well used to long days on horseback while mustering.

Describing the event as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience”, the brothers have raced across Mongolia – a landlocked nation between Russia to the north and China to the south – on semi-wild Mongolian horses for 1000 kilometre.

A challenging adventure, the race has required all their horsemanship and strength, and has proved to be even more testing than expected.

“So much can go wrong. It was a truly gruelling experience that really stretched our resilience,” Hugh says.

For 10 days each August, the Mongol Derby recreates the legendary, long-distance postal system set up by Genghis Khan in 1224.

Using a massive network of horse stations – ‘morin urtuus’ in Mongolian – at 35km intervals, the postal messengers would gallop from Kharkhorin to the Caspian Sea in days.

Today, riders from around the world race from station to station, changing horses at each.

“I rode up to 30 different horses throughout the race,” Hugh says. “While the horses were broken-in, most were strong and very feisty animals. Some were fast but others proved very slow. And you have to change horses every 35 kilometres or so.”

All race applicants must demonstrate a proven ability to manage themselves and their horses and the ability to survive in a tough environment while also promoting the ideals of sportsmanship and animal welfare.

While Hugh was an impressive 6th and Ben raced home for 8th spot, 19 of the 46 starters failed to finish. Two local riders took out the top places.

“We were certainly tested by the race – and the horses,” Hugh says. “However, it was an amazing experience and one I have wanted to tackle for many years. I talked my brother into joining me, and despite the challenges, he is still talking to me.

“The whole trip took us just under three weeks. After landing in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, we were driven for hours into the wop wops. After pre-training, we raced across huge, open, arid regions and through gullies and alongside sand dunes and camels. The environment was like the Mackenzie Basin, but many times bigger.”

Hugh urges anyone interested in racing in the premier equestrian event to apply for a starter’s spot and just “go for it” but warns that the Mongol Derby is “pretty bloody tough”.