A Boy Jockey’s Last Ride in Mongolia

KHUI DOLOON KHUDAG, Mongolia — The boy and his uncle sat on their horses on the rolling grasslands here on Saturday and watched the jockeys ride their steeds to the starting line.

They said there were so many ways the jockeys, almost all boys, might cheat. For instance, a registered jockey could secretly switch with a better rider at the last minute by handing over his green bib.

“Who knows what the riders might do to win,” said the boy, Munkherdene, 13, who had raced the previous day and was happy to be just a spectator Saturday.

It was the final day of the annual Naadam Festival, a raucous two-day event that draws horse riders, wrestlers and archers from all over Mongolia to compete in what people here call the “three manly sports.” It is one of the most vivid athletic spectacles in the world, and its roots can be traced back to competitions of martial prowess that took place among Genghis Khan’s warriors.

On Saturday morning, as Munkherdene and thousands of others watched, more than 600 stubby 5-year-old horses were set to sprint across this wide expanse of steppe west of Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital.

The day before, Munkherdene, who has never won a medal, raced one of his father’s stallions here in what was his final chance to ride in Naadam. (There would be no more races among stallions in this year’s festival, and he would be too heavy next year.)

His horse had finished 78th out of more than 200. That was respectable, but not what the boy had hoped for.

“I’m not happy,” he said. “I’m very unhappy. I wanted my horse to be among the top five.”

Munkherdene and his father, a businessman by trade and horse breeder by hobby, are among a growing number of urban, affluent Mongolians trying to rediscover their nomadic roots by hitting the summer horse-racing circuit in this starkly beautiful land. They were the subject of an article in The New York Times that was published before the boy raced Friday.

“The trainer didn’t train the horse well,” Munkherdene said. “The horse was good, but the trainer didn’t do a good job.”

The boy said he started the horse at a sprint. “I galloped as fast as possible, then reduced speed, then went fast again, then reduced speed,” he said.

The length of the course was about 15 miles.

“It was very hard because the distance was so long,” said Munkherdene, who had raced in at least three previous Naadams.

In the days leading to the race, the boy and his parents left their apartment in Ulan Bator to live on these grounds in a round felt tent called a ger. Families from all over Mongolia arrived here last week, bringing gers and racehorses with them and transforming this lush green field into a fairground. The boy’s father, Enkhbayar, had eight racehorses that he and a half-dozen hired horsemen were training.

The races this weekend were divided by age of horse. Each category had several hundred entrants. Most of the father’s horses that had raced by Saturday morning had placed in the 70s, Munkherdene said.

“Our 3-year-old horse could run very fast, but there were so many 3-year-olds that took part this year,” he said. “There were more than 500. Our horse finished 100th, and we consider that a success.”

The events at Naadam drew every kind of spectator, from camel herders to the country’s top politicians. On the grasslands here, a few dozen gers had been built to house Mongolian leaders and their families. The nation is in political turmoil: After a riot in the capital early this month, official results of a disputed parliamentary election have yet to be announced. But those tensions were put on hold during this most festive of Mongolian holidays.

For two days, everyone watched boys like Munkherdene. “It’s a pity I won’t get to ride in Naadam again,” he said. “Next year, I’ll come to Naadam, but I won’t come as a jockey. I’ll come as a horse trainer. From now on, each year I’ll come as a trainer.”

Munkherdene said he would race this summer in smaller competitions. Then he will go home to Ulan Bator to his school friends and his PlayStation.

Source: New York Times

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