Last summer, when Sophia Mangalee read a story on Equidaily.com about the winner of the 2010 Mongol Derby, she was more than intrigued and entertained. She was inspired.
“I was 100% convinced from the minute I saw (the article) that I would do that race,” said Mangalee, 28, the marketing manager of Monmouth Park. “I thought about it for about a week before I applied, and every night I was having all these dreams of galloping my pony across the Mongolian steppe.”
Mangalee’s aspirations are coming to fruition sooner than she thought. After being accepted as one of the 26 entrants and one of only three Americans in the race, Mangalee began a year-long preparation for the biggest adventure of her life.
The Mongol Derby, a 1,000 km (about 600 miles) horse race across the wilderness of the Mongolian steppe is described on its website as “the longest, toughest horse race in the world.”
While Mangalee has been riding horses the majority of her life, she will have to get accustomed to the semi-wild Mongolian horses on which she will be traveling during her 10-day journey, which begins Aug. 6.
Mongolian horses are a tough breed which range in size from 12 to 14 hands and wander the immense steppe year-round in extreme temperatures. In addition to the challenge of riding foreign horses, Mangalee will have to overcome the obstacle of getting used to 30-35 horses over the course of her trip.
She explained how horse stations will be set up in intervals of up to 25 miles throughout the race. Each time a rider stops at a station, he or she switches horses and therefore must be prepared to deal with a range of different temperaments. The Mongol Derby website explains how the network of horse stations is actually a "recreation of Chinggis Khaan's legendary empire-busting postal system."
Derby contenders are only permitted to ride between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. for safety reasons. While they have the option of staying overnight at the horse stations, Mangalee is prepared to camp out under the stars or stay with a local family depending on where she ends up each evening.
Mangalee grew up on an apple and pear farm in Peshastin, Wash. and was taught to ride at age 5 by her mother. It didn’t take long for her to decide she wanted to be a jockey and make horses her life.
After graduating high school in 2001, Mangalee responded to an advertisement in The Blood-Horse for exercise riders and jockeys and found herself galloping horses at a tiny track in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada called Marquis Downs. “It was the best experience…I learned to gallop horses from an old jockey that is now a trainer,” said Mangalee. “I had ridden since I was 5, but never on racehorses. He took me under his wing and became like an adopted father.”
Following her stint at Marquis Downs, Mangalee made a temporary move to Maryland to work for the Boniface Family’s Bonita Farm. She eventually returned to Canada to ride, this time at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, where she met her future husband, jockey Navin Mangalee.
“Horses have led me to everywhere I’ve ever been—whether it’s my husband, my job, or this race, it’s always been through a horse,” said Sophia Mangalee.
Mangalee aboard 'Bruiser,' a retired Thoroughbred track pony at Monmouth
When she had trouble maintaining the proper jockey weight, Mangalee decided a full-time career as a rider wasn’t for her. But she couldn’t fight her desire to still be involved in the industry. She decided to instead enroll in the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program, after which she was hired by Monmouth.
When Mangalee was accepted as a competitor in the Mongol Derby, she started an intense weekly regimen to prepare for the race. During her days off work, she rides horses at three different barns for four to six hours at a time. Throughout the rest of the week, she rides her bike to work, runs 3-5 miles daily, and lifts weights to stay in shape.
Mangalee’s biggest prep for the Mongol Derby was the June 11 Old Dominion 55 miler in Virginia, where she she finished sixth of 74 horses. Not bad, considering she rode a 6-year-old bay Arabian named Sir Justify, upon whom she had been aboard only once prior to the race.
Mangalee aboard Sir Justify in the Old Dominion 55 miler in Virginia
One obstacle during Mangalee’s Derby preparation that was surprisingly easy to overcome was fundraising. Each rider is required to pay a $9,800 entry fee, plus another $1,500 for the charity Mercy Corps Mongolia, a program that provides assistance to Mongolian small business and educational endeavors. After adding the cost of her plane ticket, hotel, meals, and equipment, Mangalee realized she needed to raise a staggering $20,000.
Putting her marketing skills to use, however, Mangalee created sponsorship packages for various companies to which she had a connection and was easily able to surpass her goal. She has also exceeded her fundraising requirement, with around $4,000 now going toward both Mercy Corps Mongolia and Celtic Charms, a New Jersey-based therapeutic riding center.
Mangalee’s biggest sponsors include her parent’s Wedge Mountain Winery, Sitting Duck Restaurant in Long Branch, XpressBet, Emerald Downs, and her alma mater, the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program.
When asked if she was more nervous about the mental or physical demands of the Derby, Mangalee explained, “It’s 90% mental and 10% physical, because your body will do what the mind tells it to do.
“When it comes to the race itself, I can only ride one horse and that’s my horse. So I’m not going to worry about what the competitors are doing; I’m only going to think about what I’m capable of and what I can achieve. As long as I put in 100% effort and do my best…maybe someone’s best is better than mine…I hope not, because I’m going over there with the intention of winning.”
Less than two weeks from the race, Mangalee has a lot of emotions running through her, the most prominent of which is a sense of pride.
“I’m feeling very proud of the people that supported me, because there’s no way I could have done it without the sponsors, and also the mental support everyone has given me,” she said. “Since I don’t own a horse, I’ve had to rely on other people providing me with a horse. So to have them have that faith in me has made me feel proud and honored and also humble.
“Going into (the Derby), I feel more alive. I feel things differently. The colors are more vivid, the smells are stronger, I feel everything, like there’s electricity in the air that in my boring, mundane life I’ve never felt before. I just can’t wait until I saddle up and ride across that steppe with nothing in front of me.
“The message I want to give people is go ahead and live your dreams, and as you get older, don’t forget what they are. With the economy the way it is and everyone so depressed and down, it makes us go back to who we are. Sometimes we forget who we are when we’re constantly trying to deal with family and work. Don’t forget what makes you happy.”
Visit the Mongol Derby website at www.mongolderby.com. Interested fans can also track of Mangalee's journey via her blog at www.mongolderbyrider.com.
Mangalee with Phoenix, an old Quarter Horse riding buddy