In Mongolia horse races happen all year long, even in the crazy cold winter. In the winter, young horses (mostly 4 year olds) gallop across snow covered flatlands with jockeys only a few years older than them (7-10 years old) for a day of races, for crowds that grow throughout the day.
Like most things here, it’s not quite like what we’re used to in the West. For starters, races are run like endurance races, over rugged terrain (no real track to speak of), in extreme weather, and for 15-20 kilometers (about 10 miles). Spectators don’t just stand and watch the race, they ride along with the racers, either by horse or car. The winner’s circle is more like a winner’s mob, as everyone tries to touch the sweaty coat of the winning horse for good luck. The winning horse is celebrated far more than its jockey and ends up taking home a thick felt winner’s blanket, and a headpiece goes over its bridle that gets decorated with medals and prayer silks.
The races are definitely a group activity, like most in Mongolia. Half the fun of going is moving from vantage point to vantage point and visiting with friends and relatives you run into along the way. After the races (which go on for a couple of hours with one race after another) it’s time for vodka and catching up. Horses that have been scraped clean of sweat, walked, and cooled down get loaded into the backs of Korean made mini-pick up trucks, and driven home to get back to their herd and run free on the steppes again.
Of course, I prefer the weather of racing season at Santa Anita, (and I desperately miss my horse, Squid) but the thrill of speeding through the snow with horse and rider, hoping you don’t crash into other cars trying to do the same, can’t be beat. I put together a video of some of the racing action from the backseat of Tsogtoo’s car.
Winter also brought the Moto Cross to Darkhan, similar action but with Russian Jeeps instead of horses. A presentation of the drivers and their modified race cars takes place in the plaza of the theatre and then everyone drives to the “track”, a selected bit of steppe with enough dips and curves to create a satisfying chance of danger, spin outs and machines catching air. Like the horse races, it’s all about finding the best spot for watching the races, catching up with friends, and being close enough to get hands on and help get flipped over cars & drivers back on track. Literally.
More photos on flickr.