Racing

Racing, just a very different kind: A weekend at the Quilty

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Two cameras and a notebook, a swag, pillow and torch. A very big jacket and Pip Ducks, socks all the way to the knee. It was the June long weekend and it was cold; at least, colder than a Sydneysider would like it to be. I was on my way to cover the Tom Quilty endurance ride, LandCruiser pointed at the Hawkesbury.

It was dusk when I arrived at the ride base, Del Rio Resort across the river from pretty Wiseman’s Ferry. This is god’s garden right here, exposed orange escarpments rising out of the flanks of the MacDonald and Hawkesbury rivers, wild and wilful bushland in all directions. Of course, in the darkness it was all mostly hidden, but you can smell the Australian bush like no other wilderness. That night, as I landed on some 500 horses and three times as many people, it was perfumed with equine and camp fire.

For those who know little about the Quilty, it’s a 160-km endurance ride, ‘100 miles in one day’. I had rocked up in the dark because riders set off at midnight, trusting their horses to carry them through much of the early legs in utter darkness. It’s an impressive concept, one that is alien to almost every other equine competition in existence. But then, I would discover that the sport of endurance is not like many other equine sports, and I would be smitten.

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I can actually ride a horse. That’s not a tilt towards egoism; it’s just a fact. I know about balance and position, about gaits, diagonals, forehand and tack. So one of the first things I noticed at the Quilty was the overwhelming horsemanship. Spurs and whips are not allowed in this sport, and rider after rider set off bitless and barefoot, a testimony to skill, training and trust. Of course, there was a race on, but out of 342 horses and humans that set off, most did so at a jaunty walk, a good conversation in tow with the person next to them, or a smile cut from ear to ear.

Most of these endurance horses are Arabs or Arab derivatives, that breed being known for its incredible stamina. There were a few anglos and stock horses, and a few Arabs outcrossed to standardbreds, which diluted much of the fussiness that comes with hot bloods. There was a single brumby (below), a horse that I ran into throughout the weekend and which fascinated me, and which completed the gruelling Quilty course with 214 others. There wasn’t, I believe, a single thoroughbred. It was a new experience for me.

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Working in racing as I do, I confess it has been a tough gig to cover these few months. Cobalt headlines, meth scandals and ongoing slaughter realities, the seedy undertones of this great sport get the better of my enthusiasm sometimes. At the Quilty, I saw nothing but welfare and partnership on display from people of every age - 12 all the way to 78 - and I was in heaven. Here is a sport, in Australia at least, that propagates participation and celebrates, with an almighty cheer, the very last horse over the line.

Of course, even the Quilty had its racing moments. There was an hours-long protest against the winning rider, though the result stood. Dig deeper and you’ll see allegations of cruelty pledged at the Dubai endurance community. But on the ground, this sport is grassroots horsemanship. They don’t compete for money, or even for prestige. They compete for personal satisfaction that comes from hours and hours in the wilderness with a horse, not to mention the rugged and spectacular scenery encountered along the way.

Sheikh Mohammed has a large hand in this sport, and I noticed the China Horse Club has dabbled too (see below). Under exquisite June weather in the Hawkesbury, I got to wondering if racing could do anything in this sport. It portions horses out to pony clubs and eventing homes, but could it try to school a horse for endurance? If a thoroughbred can run for two and more miles, can it learn to go, much slower of course, for 100? Couldn’t racing make much of a thoroughbred that might try?

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Naturally, the breed is not suited to endurance. For one, it’s too big. Virtually none of the Quilty horses stood over 15.1hh, which would be a slip of a racehorse. Also, the thoroughbred has been bred for speed for 300 years. There are reasons, largely physical and biological, why the endurance community avoids them. Still, the thoroughbred is gallant and pliable, and I daydream.

That first night at the Quilty, I slept in the back of the Cruiser waiting for first light. It was good to be among these people, to see how they conduct their sport and hear how they talk about their horses. That the smell of open fires and crisp bushland came with it was a bonus, the concrete cage that is so often the city very far away. This, up here, was what horse ownership was all about, and I was glad I was reminded of it. It would be unfair to say racing can learn from it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it could.

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