Hays Daily News, Kansas
By CARL MANNING
Associated Press Writer
GARDNER, Kan. (AP) -- Jim Hole was among the riders in the Great Santa Fe Horse Race finishing the 515-mile endurance ride this weekend in a town where pioneers had to decide which route to take on their westward journey.
The race started Sept. 3 near the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, going more or less along the wide, meandering trail that opened in 1821 as a trade route between Santa Fe, then part of Mexico, and its starting point in Independence, Mo.
The race called for riders to go 50 miles a day for 10 days, sometimes through blistering heat and daylong downpours as they covered the sweeping landscapes of open prairies and rolling plains.
Hole, of Sacramento, Calif., was one of two riders Friday who had made the entire trip on one horse, even though the rules allow for multiple horses. Since the start, Hole's constant companion has been Little Big Man, an 8-year-old bay Arabian gelding he calls his "friend and partner."
For Hole, the race was a link to the past, as he slept under the stars with his horse and saw much the same landscape the settlers saw.
"Sometimes you have to experience what they went through to appreciate what you've got today," Hole said. "You feel the wind on your shoulders, the smells, hear the birds. It takes you back to another day."
That's something Rob Phillips, founder and coordinator of the race, had in mind when he came up with the idea a year and half ago.
"We wanted them to get the feel for the terrain, and I think they are getting a good feel for that, but you can never replicate how it was in the 1800s," said Phillips, of Lawrence.
He said the race started with 60 riders. That's been pared to 45 or 50 as the race entered its final days.
On Friday, 21 riders competed at Eisenhower State Park near Melvern Lake in Osage County. Phillips said the park was used because it had riding trails. They rode an 18-mile circuit three times to get in their miles before setting up camp outside Gardner.
"They're out here to see what they can do. They don't have to ride every day," said ride manager Marilyn McCoy, of Sierra Vista, Ariz.
On Saturday, riders will repeat the process at Hillsdale Lake to the finish the race, then return to Gardner to find out how they fared.
Originally, the race was to end in Independence, Mo., but the proliferation of highways, streets, subdivisions and businesses between here and there ruled that out.
"The more we looked, it wasn't feasible because of the traffic. We just couldn't do that part," Phillips said. "The lakes have riding trails where we can do 50 miles on them and they are near the Santa Fe Trail."
The competition had at least a dozen categories, and the overall winner will be the rider with the shortest time.
Phillips originally envisioned an 800-mile dash for the cash. But the distance was reduced for the sake of horses and riders, and cash prizes were eliminated so the event could be sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference, the national governing body.
"We didn't want the people riding the horses so hard just to win a dollar, but they'll still get bragging rights for the rest of their lives," Phillips said.
Friday was a day of gentle winds, making the prairie grass and sunflowers wave and temperatures in the 60s. Susan Thompson, of Sweetwater, Tenn., took a scheduled break while her horse, a 7-year-old brown Arabian gelding named Thee Macade was being checked by veterinarians -- one of four vet checks each horse undergoes each day.
Thompson said the biggest challenge at the start was the New Mexico heat. But she said the day-to-day challenge is taking care of the horses.
"They can't tell you when they don't feel good, or are hungry or thirsty," she said.
Phillips' inspiration for the race came after hearing about Francis X. Aubry, a trader who made a $1,000 bet in 1848 that he could travel the trail from Santa Fe to Independence in six days. He took five days and 16 hours to cover the 800-mile route that normally took a month, establishing a record that still stands.
While this is the first year for such an event, Phillips said, "We have a vision that this will become one of the major equine events in our country."
The arrival of the riders coincides with 150th anniversary celebration of Gardner, which owes its start to the Santa Fe and Oregon trails.
"The original settlers were blacksmiths and suppliers for people on the trail. This was the last stop before deciding whether to the Santa Fe, Oregon or California trails," said Chamber of Commerce President Peter Solie.
The three trails were one coming out of Independence through Gardner. Then west of town, the Santa Fe went southwest, mainly as a two-way trade route, and the Oregon settlers' route split to the northwest. The California Trail then parted from the Oregon in southern Idaho.
On the Net:
Santa Fe Horse Race: http://www.sfthorserace.com
City of Gardner: http://www.gardnerkansas.gov