In the hoofprints of an Emperor
By Victoria Elsbury-Legg
Sleeping under the stars, no facilities and only changing their ponies every 40km sounds almost as far removed from the average polo player’s day as you can possibly get, but this is what 3 goal Pro Jamie Peel has been doing over a 10 day period during August whilst on sabbatical from the Lawns of Cowdray. Mounted alongside 47 other riders (28 female and 19 male) from disciplines as diverse as a German surfer, Icelandic stunt rider and a Swedish martial arts expert, there were also six other riders from Great Britain – for the first time ever five members of the Household Cavalry and also ex jump jockey Chris Maude, who previous feats included riding in eight Grand Nationals. These riders (and it’s worth noting they were mounted on semi-wild ponies specifically picked by Mongolian herders) were the chosen few to be taking part in the 6th Mongol Derby.
So, Jamie Peel set out at 11:13 on Wednesday 6th August to follow in the hoofprints of Genghis Khan, in one of the toughest and longest of horse races. Recreating this ancient emperor’s postal system, with 25 horse stations spread 1000km across the Mongolian steepe, Jamie Peel’s epic ride was raising money for the James Wentworth Stanley Memorial Fund. He was not however only following in the ghostly footsteps of ancient messengers; he also had a polo playing predecessor.
On graduating from Edinburgh University, Camilla Swift, now Editorial Assistant at The Spectator and who can also be found on the pitch at Raneleigh playing polo alongside Hamid Ali (and whose brother Nick was a patron at Guards) completed the Mongol Derby in 2010. At that time she was the youngest competitor to date and as she explained she used polo to get herself fit to race, ‘I had been desperate to do it the year before but I didn’t get a place – and actually it worked out much better for me, as I had May, June and July to train. I say train – I did sets of 9 twice a day, played polo or chukkas maybe 4 times a week, and went for runs at lunchtime. That was my training. Polo definitely helped – I rode the whole thing neck reining, which the ponies are used to, as on the steppe they are used for rounding up other horses and goats – a bit like cowboys do – so that helped.’ Her seasoned advice to this year’s competitors was ‘not to get off.’ Advice gained from the fact that semi-wild ponies have simply not mastered the art of standing still whilst you re-do their girth or re-pack your bag, as soon as you dismount there’re off for home as fast as their legs can carry them (and it’s certainly a lot further than pony lines nine at Smith’s Lawn).
Back in the 2014 race, Sam Jones (a 40 year old mining operator from Australia) was the first to cross the finish line. Her win meant that for a second year running a female has won this toughest of races, as last year 19 year old Lara Prior-Palmer set three records, not only becoming the first woman and Britain to win but also the youngest person. Great personal records for someone whose relatives include David Lloyd-George (her great-grandfather – Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1916 and 1922) and Aunt, Lucinda Green MBE, six-time winner of the Badminton Horse Trials. Showing that Polo is really also the perfect preparation for this epic race Jamie Peel (along with UK riders Robert Skinner and Chris Maude) came thundering in a close second just in time for the presentation – of milk from a Mongolian mare.
So, as you co-ordinate your 2015 entries for the Archie David, County or Gold Cup, you could always contemplate another tournament for which you are suitably qualified. My entry’s already on its way – I’m just hoping Royal Mail delivers to the Mongolian steepe.
If you want to apply for the 2015 race you can throw your hat in the ring at www.theadventurists.com . Places are limited and offered only after interview.