Donie Fahy thought the idea was crazy. It wasn’t even his idea to begin with. It was Richie Killoran’s. Sure it was the type of thing Richie would dream up. But Donie couldn’t even stand up. And now Richie wanted the two of them to ride a 1000km horse race across Mongolia, through searing heat and biting cold, 14 hours a day for seven days.
The last time Donie was on a horse, the ride nearly killed him. In October 2011, his mount, In Close, clipped the top of a hurdle in Ludlow and Donie Fahy was thrown right over the top.
In keeping with his name, In Close wasn’t very far behind and “he bent me double when he came down on top of me.”
The 26-year-old remembers the grisly sound of tendons stretching and bones breaking. Even now, he doesn’t know how he wasn’t knocked out. Medical experts have since explained that remaining conscious probably saved him from permanent disability.
“I knew it was serious,” he says. “I feared it was drastic because the pain was excruciating. They said if I had slumped unconscious into the wrong position I could have cut the nerves to my spinal cord.”
The sun sunk in Ludlow and against the dying light, Donie Fahy kept making sure he could move his feet. Again and again he scratched his toes against the insole of his boots. Then he started to wonder when the sun would come up again.
Those early days of recovery were spent back where it all started in the quiet of County Meath. Donie had left Tara with ambition and energy. He came to Britain in 2008 and rode out his claim in the Evan Williams yard in the Vale of Glamorgan.
Now he always seemed to be in bed; always worrying about the future. He knew he could speed up his recovery if he had something to aim for, but a 1000 km horserace across Mongolia?
Richie said the race was a recreation of the old messenger system used by Genghis Khan.
Richie might have been overestimating his reserve of determination, “either that or he just thought I was as mad as he is.”
Still, Donie rang his friend back and asked when?
“Jaysus, August…that’s less than eight months away.”
The months passed, his bones knitted and the idea bedded in.
By the time Donie got back to Britain he was walking. Before last March was out he was riding again.
People told him his recovery was miraculous. He just told them the name of the miracle worker – Birender Balain, from the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic hospital in Shropshire, the surgeon who put him back together again.
Sometimes he has to look Birender up on the internet to get the spelling right. But he’ll be a long time forgetting his name.
“They said I suffered a fracture and dislocation of the Lumber Vertebrae 2…which basically means I broke my back,” he says. “So Richie rings and I’m wondering what riding 14 hours a day and sleeping on the ground is going to do for it.”
Dony committed to a rehab programme in Oaksey House, Lambourn “where injured jockeys go.”
He went from only being able to stand for five minutes to doing four and a half hours of gym work every day.
By the time he got to Mongolia, he had already resumed race riding and here he was at the start line with Richie – who usually rides for champion trainer Nicky Henderson – and 32 others “from every nook and cranny in the world.”
There was a tangible feeling of respect among the group, but Donie and Richie were revered because of their profession.
“Everyone was saying ye boys are going to win, but I was saying, ‘hold on a minute lads, we’re only used to being up on a horse five minutes at a time, not 14 hours for seven days straight.’”
They were given a GPS reader, a set of co-ordinates and told they could only ride between 7am and 9pm. Not a minute before or after. The 1000 km route was broken into 40km stages. They would be given new coordinates and a new horse at each staging post.
“You’d see them across the plains, tied up like clothes on a washing line. They looked more like ponies than horses to be honest and we’d just pick out two we liked, get the interpreter to call the owner, ask a few questions and then make our choice.”
Once they did, a vet would check their horses were hydrated; make sure the animals heart rate was under 64 beats a minute and away they’d go.
They went and went, across vast plains, through narrow passes, over peaks so high “the birds wouldn’t even go up there” and when they got through the marshes there was nothing but mountains “row after row after row.”
When they got lost, they picked out the highest point and hacked it to the top, hoping to get a clear sight of where they were going, only to find the horizon filled with more snowy peaks.
When the thunder storms rolled in, they watched as day turned to night and worried about the lightening that split the sky and stabbed the plains.
They rode alone, sometimes focused on the finish, sometimes fearful of a fall. Donie was fully aware of what that might mean and they were solemn when they heard news of the Dutch guy who suffered two cracked vertebrae when thrown from his mount “and where did you go to for help out there.”
They were fearful of wild dogs that shadowed the groups of nomads then set upon their ‘ponies’ with wild eyes and wilder teeth.
But they learned to trust their durable guardians – “Christ were they tough” – they carried them through the danger and kept on keeping on, kilometre after kilometre after kilometre.
There were so many. There was so much space. There was the feeling of isolation and the threat of being marooned.
There was that cowboy from Denver. The guy who was caught short, the one whose horse got spooked while he tended to a call of nature. They wondered what might have happened, if his grab for the reigns hadn’t have been successful…and it might not have been because his trousers were around his ankles when he lunged.
Donie and Richie laughed about that, but mostly they just rode down the kilometres, quicker and more tactically than everyone else in the field, with the exception of a South African rider Barry Armitage who they trailed by just three minutes on the final day.
It was 90 minutes on the penultimate morning, but they were blessed with their choice of horses that afternoon and they cantered so long that eventually, they could make out Barry’s shape on the horizon.
They toughed it out that night, sleeping in an old cattle shed. By then they hadn’t showered for nearly two weeks, and were fuelled only by cups of fermented mare’s milk and mutton, given to them by locals with smiles as wide as those plains.
Beneath the quiet of a starry night, Donie thought about all that, and the finish. He felt the stony ground beneath his back and was grateful for the feeling, for Birender Balain, for Richie’s phone call!
And when in the final kilometres, he got upsides the race leader, the South African turned, smiled and told him the journey wasn’t done yet.
After 1000km and 25 pony changes, it was probably only right that they crossed the line together.
A dead heat on a cold night in Mongolia. It warmed all their hearts.
Donie Fahy and Richie Killoran undertook the Mongolian Derby to raise money for the injured jockey’s fund. The race organisers later awarded the race to Donie after judges found the South African’s horse was lame. Richie Killoran was awarded second place. To support their charity, log on to www.justgiving.com/mongolderbycharityrace