09/15/2011 10:47AM

Q&A: Sophia Mangalee

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Asbury Park Press

Marketing manager at Monmouth Park, she recently competed in the Mongol Derby, at 1,000 kilometers the world’s longest horse race, in which she finished 10th.

Birthdate: February 16, 1983 in Wenatchee, WA

Family: husband, Navin

Got into racing because. . . When I was 10 years old I read “The Black Stallion” and decided I wanted to be a jockey. But after exercise riding a couple of years I realized I liked my steak and potatoes just too much, and I’d rather introduce new fans to the sport I love. So I went to the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. I was hired straight out of that program by Monmouth. The other thing that got me interested in racing was Kids to the Cup. I joined when I was 14 years old. I had to write a 100-word essay on why I love Thoroughbred racing. I’ve kept in touch with John DeSantis, who worked with Trudy McCaffery on Kids to the Cup. He now works for Xpressbet, and they helped sponsor my trip to Mongolia.”

How in the world did you decide to ride in the Mongol Derby? I saw a story about last year’s winner on the Internet. For the next three nights I had dreams of galloping across the steppe on my pony. I knew in my heart that I was destined to do this race. So after getting my husband’s blessing, I applied.

How did you qualify to ride in the race? I had to submit an application to the race organizers, the Adventurists, which is based in the UK. Then the race organizers interviewed me and my reference, racehorse trainer Sharon Ross. I exercise rode for Sharon for two summers at Emerald Downs while I was at the U of A, and if anyone could speak to my riding ability, it was her.

How do you prepare for a race that’s more than 600 miles long? Lots of saddle time! Every Monday and Tuesday I would ride four to six hours on four different horses at three different farms. On the days I had to work I would try to go to the gym and run before or after work.

How many days did it take to complete the course? Nine long, hard days of riding nearly 13 hours a day.

How did you hold up? Going into the race I thought my physical condition was my weakness, but that turned out to not be a problem. The first day I was sore and tired, but the next day I woke up and felt like a million bucks. It continued on like that. What was amazing was that as the race went on, I got fitter and fitter and felt better and better. At the end, I was thinking, “I wish the race was four more days, I could catch them!” I’m proud I did it with no painkillers. I hurt my back riding several years ago, and I seriously thought I would be in excruciating pain every single night, but I wasn’t.

You finished 10th. How many riders started, how many finished? Twenty-three riders started, only 13 finished. There were numerous injuries and circumstances where riders were pulled out. Around Day Six it became clear to me that this was more about survival than the race.

Survival for you or the horses? The horses are fine. They were trying to kill us! As the race went on you realized how dangerous what you were doing was. Each day it seemed we’d lose another rider to injury or illness. When they’re dropping around you like flies, you’re like, “Just let me stay on this horse and make it to next station.” On Day Six I was re-tightening my horse’s girth, but the whole saddle rolled under him, and he bolted. I had to walk five miles to the next horse station, and the horse was lost for five days. When you are trudging across the Mongolian landscape with all your gear on your shoulders, you realize you are not going to win.

How many horses did you ride? Twenty-seven, including the two that I lost.

Lost? The first one I lost happened on Day Two. He bucked and took off. I was told that if a horse takes off they normally run back to the station they’re at, which is where they live. But mine did not. I sat there for 3 1/2 hours while they sent out people on horseback to look for him in the general direction he went off. They couldn’t find him. So they sent me on with another horse, and two hours later they found him with my gear, with my saddle bags on him. What they do is if they can’t find your horse, they give you another horse after a valiant effort to find your lost mount. On Day Six, my horse took off bucking and kicking. He went over a ridge, and I never saw him again. We spent 5 1/2 hours going back over the 25 miles I had just ridden, looking for him among the different horse herds in the area, thinking he’d joined one of the herds. I had to leave a $700 deposit at the beginning of the race in case I lost a horse. I figured I wouldn’t get it back. On the day I left, they said they had found that horse.”

What types of horses are they? Mongol horses, but by our standards we would call them ponies. They are incredibly hardy and half wild. We would ride each horse approximately 40 kilometers between horse stations.

What types of security precautions did you have to take? None, really. My husband insisted I wear his jockey safety vest, and all riders were required to wear a helmet. Mongolia is one of the safest countries in the world. One of its biggest crimes is public drunkenness. Their hospitality is amazing. If you ride up, they give you a bed to sleep on, food, and take care of your horse. The code is to help the traveler. At no point did any of us feel threatened. We were warned about horse thieves, so you had to secure your horse at night. The Mongolians are very kind and gentle people. Security-wise, me as a woman, and a little woman at that, there was no concern at all for my safety.

Would you do it again? No. I have no regrets on how I rode the race, and I was very proud to have finished. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. After I got back, I recounted the entire adventure on my blog, mongolderbyrider.com.

Just wondering, in case anyone reading this is interested – how do you get to Mongolia from New Jersey? A non-stop, 14-hour flight on Continental from Newark to Beijing. Then a two-hour puddle jumper to Ulaanbatar.

You are back at Monmouth. What are your responsibilities there? I manage all the marketing and advertising for the racetrack. We work hard to get new fans to the track while serving our existing fans. My favorite aspect of the job is the fans. We have the absolute best at Monmouth.

Best horse seen? Rachel Alexandra. Watching her win the Haskell gave me goosebumps, and she was a classy filly.

Hobbies? Horseback riding and running. I am a country girl at heart, so I truly enjoy the outdoors.

Future ambitions? I have to find my next adventure!