As a child growing up on a 3000 acre sheep and beef farm in Dannevirke, on the eastern side of New Zealand’s North Island, Justine Hales traversed the property and helped her parents with farm work from the back of her pony. Next month, she’ll be again traversing land on horseback – but this time, it will be across the rugged grasslands of Mongolia.
Justine will be joining 40 other competitors in this year’s edition of the longest and toughest horse race on earth – The Mongol Derby.
*The Mongol Derby (Image: The Adventurists)
Nearly 800 years ago, in 1224, Genghis Khan set up the world’s first long-distance postal transmission system. Using a massive network of horse stations – ‘morin urtuus’ in Mongolian – his hardy messengers could gallop the 1000 kilometre stretch from Kharkhorin to the Caspian Sea in a number of days.
The Mongol Derby recreates this legendary system, building a network of urtuus at 35km intervals along the course. But this is no leisurely trail ride. With only 5kg allowed in their packs, riders have 10 days to cross the remote Mongolian steppe on semi-wild horses. They navigate and survive on their own wit and skill, living amongst herders and local families or sleeping under the stars. It is rider and horse vs the wild.
Justine has been surrounded by horses her entire life, participating in pony club and hunting as a youngster. Her parents bred and owned racehorses, and her grandfather bred the 1976 Caulfield Cup winner, How Now. Whilst at university, Justine took a summer holiday job in racing. She worked for champion horse trainers Dave and Paul O’Sullivan, as well as Laurie Laxon. Travelling with horses led her to England and jobs with trainers Andrew Balding and Nicky Henderson. In 2008 Justine moved to Sydney, where she spent the next 8 years working for Chris Waller at both his Rosehill and Flemington stables. She currently manages Ciaron Maher’s pre-training complex in Pakenham, Cavallino Estate.
It was fellow racing industry stalwart Brent Albuino, who first inspired Justine to participate in this ultimate equine adventure race. Brent completed the Derby in 2014, finishing in eighth place behind Australia’s first winner, WA’s Sam Jones. You can read his rather harrowing memoir, where he speaks of potholes, tiredness, pain and being chased by hungry feral dogs, HERE. Having also completed South Africa’s inaugural Race The Wild Coast in 2016, he clearly likes doing the ridiculous!
Whilst no stranger to horses, the Mongolian athletes Justine will be riding in the Derby are not her usual type of ride. The organising team behind the event, The Adventurists, describe the horses as “equine gladiators; grass fuelled, air cooled, saddled and bridled after some serious negotiation. They don’t come when you whistle and they won’t appreciate a pat on the neck or a kiss on the nose.
Impervious to heat, cold, hunger, thirst, flies, foods, deserts and anything else that Mongolian Mother Nature can throw, they can cross terrain that would make a thoroughbred weep and maintain speeds that would put them in contention in many a tough endurance ride.”
The participating horses, who are rotated at regular intervals, have all been carefully selected by an experienced vet team, trained in the run-up to the event, and their welfare continually monitored throughout.
Whilst colleagues Annabel Neasham and Adrian Corboys may have beaten her to Mongolia last year, (Adrian was a last minute replacement for original entrant Ciaron Maher after he broke his leg in a track work incident) she hasn’t let theirs, or Brent’s, horror stories deter her from the adventure!
As well as her Go Fund Me page, Justine is also hosting two upcoming events to help raise money for both the official event charity and her own charity of choice. Sponsorship opportunities are also still available.
Join Justine at a Trivia Night this Sunday 23rd June at South Melbourne’s Emerald Hotel. Commencing at 4.00pm and hosted by Mick Sharkie, money raised will go towards the portion of Justine’s entry fee that supports the local Mongolian families who supply and care for the race horses.
The second Ciaron Maher Racing Mongol Derby Gala Ball will be held at Flemington Racecourse on Saturday 20th July. A live auction on the night will raise funds for the important work of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation. Find out more or book Here.
To find out more about the above events or to follow Justine and her amazing Mongol Derby journey, visit her page on Facebook.
*Justine Hales will compete the 2019 Mongol Derby