On the [Mongol] Derby trail

photo credit Keith J. Woods

“I’m not an adrenalin junkie,” declared Sophia Mangalee, marketing manager at Monmouth Park. “I’m scared of roller coasters, I don’t want to bungee-jump, I don’t want to skydive, I don’t want to climb Mount Everest. I wouldn’t call myself adventurous.”

Others might beg to differ.

This summer, Mangalee is in training. She’s riding horses, she’s running, she’s lifting weights. But she’s not training for another marathon (she’s already run Barcelona and Cincinnati), or for a triathlon.

She’s getting ready to ride 1000 kilometers across the Mongol steppe.

“I like horses,” she said Friday from Monmouth. “I like camping and travelling to new countries.”

Most people who like horses and camping and travelling would find a less arduous, more relaxing way to indulge their interests, but once Mangalee found out about the Mongol Derby, she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“I saw a story about it on Equidaily last September, and I knew that I just had it do it. There was no question in my mind,” she said. “I was literally dreaming about it.”

“When I was accepted, I was like those people on game shows. I was screaming, jumping up and down. I totally lost my mind.”

Mangalee got her start in the racing industry at age 18. Two days after finishing high school, she headed for Marquis Downs in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “I saw an ad in The Blood-Horse,” she said, laughing. “They were advertising for jockeys and exercise riders. My parents loved me for that one.”

In the hope of becoming a jockey, she galloped horses for the next few years, at Marquis Downs, at Bonita Farm in Maryland, at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at Emerald Downs in Washington.

She met her husband, jockey Navin Mangalee, when she was 19, and realizing that she’d never be light enough to ride in races, she attended the Race Track  Industry Program at the University of Arizona.  From there, she went to Monmouth in 2006.

The RTIP is one of Mangalee’s sponsors for her ride. The entry fee is $9,800 and doesn’t cover airfare or other expenses, something Mangalee doesn’t mind.

“There are 25 riders who will each ride 35-40 horses through the course of the race,” she explained. “The entry fee covers medical and veterinary support and the coordination of all the logistics.”

She leaves for Mongolia on July 30; the race begins on August 6. She said that she and the other riders will be aboard “semi-wild Mongol ponies.”

“These aren’t horses hanging out in a pasture,” she said. “Local people go out and bring them in and the horses go through a strict process of selection. They have to make sure that the horses can carry the weight and that they’re capable of the rigors of traveling 40 kilometers a day.”

Each day riders can ride from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.; riding outside those hours will incur a penalty. They’ll draw straws for horses on the first day and head for the first horse station; horse stations are situated in 40 kilometer intervals.  Whoever gets to the horse station first gets the pick of the herd waiting there for the next stage.

“I’ll try to get to three or four horse stations in one day. We have 10 days to complete the race, but you have to do it in seven or eight days to win,” she said.

Asked about her training regimen, she laughed.

“I’m married, I’m domesticated, I have a job! I hate the gym. I run, but if I don’t have a race to train for, I don’t even do that.”

Kidding aside, she said that her training started last fall. Having not ridden consistently in five years, she made getting on horses the priority. On her two days off each week from Monmouth, she tries to ride five or six hours each day.  “The biggest challenge,” she said, “is finding horses that can go out for two or three hours at a time.”

Mangalee has a blog on the race’s website where she details her preparations, and throughout the race she’ll wear a satellite tracker. Long-distance spectators can monitor her progress on the map on the Mongol Derby website that will indicate where the riders are.  The race’s organizers will try to update the riders’ Twitter accounts as well (follow Mangalee at @ruffianrunner).

In addition to funding her own travel, Mangalee had to pledge to raise at least $1,000 for Mercy Corps Mongolia, an organization that supports Mongolians developing self-sustaining projects, such as women who want to begin a quilting business, or farmers who develop new agricultural methods.

Any money raised over the $1,000 can go to a charity of Mangalee’s choice; she’s selected Celtic Charms, a therapeutic riding organization in New Jersey.  So far, she’s raised over $3,000 and she expects to raise another $2,000.  Those interested in donating can do so at Mangalee’s website.

Mangalee anticipates that the mental part will be the biggest challenge.  “Physically, I know that I’ll be prepared,” she said. “Mentally, I’ll be dealing with a lot of factors I’ve never dealt with. The first few days will be all adrenaline, and the next few days, pushing through that, will be the challenge.”

Those challenges do nothing to diminish Mangalee’s zeal. Asked what she’s most looking forward to, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Galloping across the steppe of Mongolia with no fence in front of me, just my horse and me. It’s something that you dream of, like riding Pegasus in the clouds. I can’t think of anything better.”

6 thoughts on “On the [Mongol] Derby trail

  1. What extraordinary spirit Mrs. Mangalee presents before this arduous challenge. I envy her opportunity and desire, as well as admire her Twitter account handle, “@ruffianrunner.”

    For this, I’ll try to learn how to check in through Twitter.

    Good luck, Sophia!

  2. Good Luck with the challenge, Sophia! Have fun, and send Teresa and us an update on your Hidalgo-esque adventure.

  3. I hav never heard of this race I wish I could ride it also. Sounds like a real adventure. Best of luck to U & the horses U pic.

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