Mongol Derby: Second place for U.S. Marine veteran in the world’s toughest horse race

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The Mongol Derby, the world’s longest and toughest horse race, has been thundering across Mongolia’s steppe for ten days this month. In one of the closest ever races, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Massachusetts, Matthew Perella, took second place. 

Matthew Perella riding in the Mongol Derby
Matthew Perella in full flow. Photo by Kathy Gabriel

Based on the ancient horse messenger system used by Genghis Khan — in a country where the horse is king — at 1,000 kilometers, the Derby is the toughest test on the planet for equestrian endurance riders. Whilst horses are changed roughly every 35km, at checkpoints strung out throughout the country, riders must endure being in the saddle for up to 200km a day and face the challenges of riding over 28 different semi-wild horses. The riders must face the animals’ varying temperaments and bucking abilities, and the inevitable falls and mishaps that happen along the way while navigating through challenging terrain, including giant sand dunes and freezing mountain passes.  

Riders leading their Mongolian horses
Riders with their steeds during the 2023 Mongol Derby. Pakistani rider Omer Hayat Khan in the foreground. Photo by Shari Thompson

The thirteenth edition of the Mongol Derby kicked off on August 2 and looked set to be a firecracker from the off, with 42 riders from 11 different nations competing for the prestigious win. 

Watch this recap of day one of the Mongol Derby.

Day one saw Spanish rider Xavier Ferrer riding at the front of the pack for most of the day, but he wasn’t in the lead as evening fell. Having had a reversal of fortune when he abruptly parted ways with his horse en route to HS3 (horse station 3), Xavier had to hitch a ride back to HS2. This left German rider Judith Jaeckle at the front of the race as night fell.  

Judith Jaeckle getting ready to ride
Judith Jaeckle getting ready to ride. Photo by Kathy Gabriel

Over the next eight days, Judith was never far from the front of the race and showed true horsemanship skills by never having to redraw a horse (new to the race this year, every horse station was a ‘lotto’, meaning riders had to ride the horse they were given, rather than picking a horse themselves, testing their horsemanship all the more. You could, however, choose to ‘redraw’ a maximum of three times in the race if you didn’t like the look of the horse you were first given). 

Erdene-Ochir Uuganbayar winner of the August 2022 Mongol Derby, was a host at one of this year’s horse stations.
Erdene-Ochir Uuganbayar winner of the August 2022 Mongol Derby, was a host at one of this year’s horse stations. Photo by Kathy Gabriel

The real battle of the race would come on its final stretch, as Swedish rider Linda Hermann — who had been in a game of cat and mouse with Judith over the previous days — finally managed to overtake the German rider to take the lead. . . but only just, and it certainly wasn’t a two-horse race. Hot on the ladies’ tails was American Marine Matthew Perrella, whose navigation prowess and luck of the draw with some seriously fast racehorses, now put him in contention for the Mongol Derby win. 

As it came down to the last two horse stations, Linda found herself deep in a bog. Luckily she and her horse were fine, but it was a very tense moment and a vet team was dispatched before her horse was cleared to continue. This slowed the Swedish rider down, and allowed Judith and Matt to both gain ground, riding on very fast horses. It was down to the wire, but Linda was able to make it to the final horse station, before the finish line. She cleared the vet check (these checks happen at every checkpoint to ensure all horses are OK and haven’t been ridden too hard), and remounted on a seriously fit racehorse while still in the lead. The win seemed hers, as long as her horse passed the final vet check at the finish line. 

An unbroke Mongolian horse rearing and bucking
A rather spirited horse. Photo by Kathy Gabriel

But Judith and Matt had other ideas and reached the final horse station almost within eyesight of Linda. They both changed horses swiftly. With Matt on one of the most feral and fastest horses on the course, he crossed the finish line shortly after Linda, with Judith a mere few minutes behind him. 

With bated breath, everyone waited for Linda’s vet check to clear (a penalty would lead to her losing the win), but finally the news came that her horse’s heart rate was below the 56 beats per minute requirement and the win was hers. Matt and Judith cleared their vet checks shortly after crossing, with Matt claiming second place and Judith third. 

Judith Jaeckle galloping across Mongolia’s steppe. Photo by Kathy Gabriel

Not only was the race an incredible success for all those involved, but it also helped raise a huge amount of money for charity. The Mongol Derby to date has raised over $1 million for charities, with each rider asked to raise funds for good causes. Among them was the race’s official charity partner, Steppe and Hoof, whose objective is to support the herders and their animals while working to save the unique traditions that are part of the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle as it comes under fire from climate change and urbanization.  

Matthew Perella was also raising money for The Righteous Life Rescue Ranch, which he founded to help retired horses and death row dogs, as well as to provide equine therapy to veterans with PTSD, those with special needs, and anyone seeking inner peace and overall improved health.   

For more details on the Mongol Derby, visit www.equestrianists.com.  

Comments from Winner Linda Hermann at the Mongol Derby Finish Line

Linda on being stuck in the bog en route to the last horse station: 

“I had a lot of pressure today. . . but [the horse] just got up and nothing was wrong with him. The vet cleared him and we continued to the final station.” 

Linda on her favorite part of the race: 

“Riding alone.” 

Linda on expectation vs. reality:

“The rodeos at the horse station, I expected that, and I got it. Most notably being kicked in the stomach.”

Linda on the horses she raced on: 

“The thing is, when you’re going so fast on some of these horses, there’s a feeling that, ‘If my horse trips, I am dead,’ but they didn’t trip. The risk and the feeling was just incredible.”

— Edited Press Release

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