Mongolian horse racing

by AFP/Karl Malakunas, Oct 8, 2006 | Destinations: Mongolia

TOV PROVINCE, Mongolia, July 13, 2006 (AFP) - Just after dawn on one of Mongolia's famed steppes, a young man on horseback waited nervously hoping that the coming eruption of chaos, passion and intrigue would bring him glory.

Ahduu, a 26-year-old herdsman and stallion trainer, breathed in the rich scent of horses and damp earth as he leaned over his saddle in silhouette and cast his eyes down the long, winding valley.

The race of his life had just begun and his fate lay in the tiny hands of an eight-year-old boy who was jostling with 400 other children on horses along a 28-kilometer (17-mile) track carved through the rhythmic countryside.

The winner's cheque was the equivalent of about 1,500 dollars -- more than Ahduu's annual income -- but the prize money was only of secondary importance.

The race, on Wednesday in Tov province about an hour's drive from the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, was part of this week's annual Naadam festivities that coincided with the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Mongol Empire.

"This is the biggest race I have ever been involved in. If we win, I will have a great reputation in my village. This is the most important thing," Ahduu said.

Horse racing has for centuries been as much a part of Mongolian culture as Genghis Khan, nomadic ger tents and fermented mare's milk.

"Being on a horse is just wonderful, it's what all children dream of doing, it's all I wanted to do when I was young," said Ahduu, who started riding when he was five and was himself a child jockey.

However, as the young riders arrived at the finishing line around three hours after the official start, the race appeared anything but idyllic.

The thousands of people, many dressed in traditional Mongolian nomadic robes, who had gathered around the home straight cheered wildly as the first few riders galloped into view.

But the procession of exhausted horses and children that followed drew repeated gasps and expressions of alarm.

One horse that was carrying a boy who looked no older than five years old collapsed just meters from the finishing line.

As the boy staggered to his feet, marshals ran to the motionless horse and began kicking it forcefully in the chest area in an effort to revive it.

Almost a minute and many kicks passed before the horse miraculously jumped back to life and stumbled off the track.

Shortly after, another horse galloped through the finishing line with his boy jockey slumped motionless on its back.

And while some jockeys -- mostly boys but also girls -- wore bicycle helmets, many wore no head protection or any other safety gear. Some did not even have a saddle or shoes.

The use of child jockeys is as old as racing itself in Mongolia, where riding a horse has been an essential survival skill for the nomadic tribes that still make up nearly half the population.

And while the use of young children and the exhausting length of the races have become increasingly controversial issues in Mongolia, allegations of race-fixing were a far more pressing in the valley this week.

"Soldiers held many horses at the start of the race... it was rigged," one trainer said as his exhausted jockey sat next to him.

"I have nothing more to say, I am too upset."

As in many other sectors of Mongolian society, corruption is a common problem in horse racing, according to a local journalist who was at the race.

"Sometimes people pay bribes to soldiers to hold back some horses," she said.

The controversy appeared not to spoil the festival atmosphere, however, with the crowd moving down the valley after the race to feast on traditional Mongolian barbecue and drink beer and sour tea.

The scene at the party was almost as chaotic and colorful as the race, with men slaughtering goats just meters away from dining tables, while women wearing high heels casually rode horses among the tents.

Billiard tables had been brought in to the valley for the occasion and boys played pool, while older men paraded their symbols of wealth such as silk lined "deel" robes, silver encrusted belts and mobile phones.

"This is a wonderful day," said Gansuh, a 33-year-old herder who had traveled on horseback more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from his home village to join in the festivities.

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