On July 28, 2007, on the night of the full riding moon, 185 horse-and-rider teams gathered in dusty darkness, awaiting the 5:15 a.m. start of the 53rd Western States Trail Ride, also known as the Tevis Cup. Taking riders and their mounts through extremes of temperature and elevation, the Tevis is considered the most challenging endurance ride in the world.
The journey would begin under tall Truckee pines, gaining elevation steadily to High Camp near Squaw Valley, then progressing through the Granite Chief Wilderness to trace narrow trails penciled along precipices of California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. Horses and riders would slake their thirst, cool down and refuel at checkpoints whose names bore witness to the trail's toughness and rich history: Devil's Thumb, Dusty Corners, Last Chance, Deadwood. Although the first finishers would take their victory lap in Auburn's McCann Stadium before midnight, more than half the finishers would take nearly the entire 24 hours to cross the finish line and pass a final veterinary inspection to earn a silver buckle.
Among riders this year would be Matthew Mackay-Smith, DVM, 74, of White Post, Va., an avid endurance rider and EQUUS magazine's medical editor since the magazine was founded 30 years ago. He's a member of the endurance riding hall of fame with nearly 6,000 lifetime endurance miles and six Tevis completions. An early architect of equine sport science and an advocate of equine welfare, Mackay-Smith has earned Tevis buckles in each of four decades: the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s. Away from the sport for six years and the Tevis for 12 years, Mackay-Smith wanted to take in the view from Cougar Rock one more time and ride through the night from Forest Hill to the finish to earn one more buckle in the '00s.
Riding an Anglo-Arabian named Fred, Mackay-Smith made history in 1995 by becoming the first man or woman to finish first on both the Tevis and its east-coast counterpart, the Old Dominion 100 near Front Royal, Va. Many thought the feat would never be matched, but last year John Crandell, of Capon Springs, W.V., atop a powerful, elegant, blaze-faced Arabian named Heraldic, not only won both rides but earned the coveted Best Condition award.
Growing up in an endurance-riding family from West River, Md., Crandell was just eight when Mackay-Smith was winning his first Old Dominion. He considers Mackay-Smith his mentor in the sport. Crandell is now considered one of the finest endurance riders in the world, and Heraldic remains undefeated in five 100-mile endurance starts.
Two trails converged at this year's Tevis: Mackay-Smith returning on an interior journey to see if he had one more Tevis completion in his bones, and Crandell returning as defending champion, seeking back-to-back Tevis Cups on different horses. Their mounts were superbly conditioned, both coming off wins in two tough Eastern endurance events, the Old Dominion 100 and the Michaux Madness 75. Their pacing and strategy ultimately reflected the riders' overarching concern for the well-being of their mounts. Each eschewed a "win at all costs" mentality, opening the door to rewards perhaps richer than either had imagined.
Friday, July 27, 2007, Tevis Eve
Mackay-Smith ventured west on a personal quest--a "voyage of inquiry," as he put it the evening before the ride. Resting on a cot under the pines as a nearly full, fat yellow moon came up, he said, "I'm in emotional territory I haven't investigated before." Since he finished first on both the Old Dominion 100 and the Tevis Cup in 1995, a progressive arthritic condition has bedeviled the otherwise ageless man, forcing him at 74 to flirt with the fringes of the end of his endurance career.
"As you slow down, the rest of the world seems to speed up," Mackay-Smith observed. "If you had said to me when I was here last, 'your next conceivable window [to ride Tevis] is gonna be 12 years from now,' I might very well have accepted that that was a nice way of saying, 'that's it, buddy.'"
Although he kept up another favorite equine activity, foxhunting, Mackay-Smith often reflected on whether his endurance days were over.
"It sneaks up on you," he noted. "Months turn into seasons and seasons turn into years. By the autumn of '04, I was unable to ride a horse sitting still or at the walk. I could manage a trot and gallop and jump fences, but I knew I had to get that hip done." In April 2005, he had a hip replacement.