What the Boston Marathon is to the distance runner, the Western States 100-mile, one-day ride for the Tevis Cup is to the endurance horseman. And, like the marathon, the California race over the rugged Sierra from Tahoe City to Auburn attracts some improbable but wonderful people. Among the 92 riders who started this year, there were a couple on their honeymoon, a 12-year-old girl, a 72-year-old man who had put off a hernia operation in order to compete, an Indian ranch hand, some polo players, a woman believed to be a Cherokee princess, an assortment of mothers, secretaries, factory workers and businessmen and a man with a gray vandyke beard who was described as a retired capitalist.
The stallions, mares and geldings entered were just as surprisingly diverse, and included just about everything found in a horse encyclopedia: Arabians, Anglo-Arabians, a Peruvian Paso, quarter horses, Appaloosas, Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, Morgans pure and crossed with all the others, Pintos, buckskins, palominos and even a plain old western mustang. The horses were brought to Tahoe City's ball park the day before the race to be examined by eight veterinarians. Any horse whose condition was the slightest bit questionable was disqualified. "It is the integrity of the ride that matters," said Will Tevis, who, with his brothers, contributed the cup in memory of their grandfather. "We want to be sure that the horses are sound at the start and are humanely treated. A winning racehorse can finish lame, but here no unsound horse can win. In fact, he would probably be caught at one of the checkpoints [there are four], instantly disqualified and removed by trailer." One of the requirements of the Tevis Cup is that the winner must be serviceably sound in the opinion of the vet examining board, and another prize, the Haggin Cup, is offered to the horse that finishes in the best physical condition among the top 10. Many riders enter with no hope of winning but just to complete the 100 miles. If they do, and their horses pass examination, each is awarded a sterling silver and gold buckle. This specially designed and highly prized trophy is worn by only one man who has not competed in the race. He is 76-year-old Will Tevis, who holds the world record for riding 200 miles in about 10 hours and who in 1923 helped to defeat an Army team in a reenactment of the Pony Express ride from the Nevada border to the Pacific.
Although he did not ride, Tevis had several horses entered whose training and conditioning he had planned. Another nonrider with multiple entries was Wendell Robie, who originated the 100-mile ride. In the early '30s he was guided over the almost-forgotten trail by Robert Watson, a son of one of the area's pioneers. Some months later Watson was killed in a fall, leaving Robie and a handful of friends the only men with an intimate knowledge of this onetime gold-rush and Pony Express route. The trail is as hazardous as it is historic, going up to almost 8,000 feet at Emigrant Pass, where glaciers still lie in pockets, and snaking close to 2,000 feet into canyons where the temperature can reach 110°.
This was the test that drew horses and riders to Tahoe City in the chill, dark dawn. The ride is always scheduled when there will be a full moon to light the trail, but this year the skies remained perversely overcast. The riders, astride English, Western or McClellan saddles, were started in flights of six, with the cup competitors leading and the buckle-seekers setting off last. The popular favorite was Ed Johnson, on his Arabian stallion Bezatal, who established a new record last year by finishing in 11 hours 38 minutes. Another strong contender was Donna Fitzgerald on an Arabian gelding named Razlind. They had finished second last year, and the horse's owner, Ted Jerry, had promised to give the gray to Donna if they finished in the first five.
Before the first stop Trudy Petersen's horse fell at Robertson Flat. The horse was uninjured, but Trudy suffered a huge bruise on one hip. By shifting her weight to the other stirrup and hanging on to the horse's mane, however, she was able to finish the race. Although riders with bruises may go on, horses may not, and several who had picked up stone bruises on the first part of the trail were eliminated at Robertson Flat after only 35 miles.
Donna Fitzgerald led the way out, her gelding looking just a little tired as they entered the toughest part of the ride, the canyon area between the flat and Michigan Bluff. Ed Johnson was next, his horse fresh and pawing the ground. The others were strung out, among them Tevis' chestnut half-Arabian gelding named Pancho. Pancho was ridden by a 32-year-old insurance salesman, Bud Dardi, who was making his fourth try for the cup. His wife, Marsha, was pessimistic as she rubbed Pancho at Robertson Flat. "I'm surprised the horse has made it this far," she said. "He's not my favorite."
At Michigan Bluff, a grueling 30 miles later, conditions were somewhat changed. Cliff Lewis and his horse, Kaput, never reached the bluff. They fell from the trail a thousand feet into a canyon. Lewis walked out, but it took three days and nearly a dozen rescue attempts before Kaput was hoisted out by helicopter. The horse was in surprisingly good condition.
Donna Fitzgerald and Razlind arrived at Michigan Bluff a full hour before any of the others. The gelding looked very tired but an hour later had recovered remarkably. The vets, however, advised a very slow pace from then on, and Donna left at a walk for Echo Hill. After her departure Johnson and Bezatal, the latter still bright and alert, checked in, and soon others began to arrive, including Pancho, who had been steadily gaining. Johnson started closing the gap between himself and Donna, but at Echo Hill he was forced out. He was running a fever, and an old knee injury had been aggravated when he ran alongside his horse on a steep hill to save him from a fall. Bud Dardi and Pancho were also gaining on Donna. She was holding the horse to a slow pace.
Donna came slowly up the hill to one of the late checkpoints. Her pink shirt was wilted, and her face was smudged. She had been running alongside the horse, and her own energy seemed almost gone. Within five minutes of her arrival, there came the sound of hoof-beats up the mountain. It was Dardi and Pancho, moving free and easy. Donna started up again, aware that if she pushed her horse she could hurt him, and that if she did not she would surely lose. She stayed at a walk.
At the fairgrounds racetrack in Auburn the grandstand was jammed. Marsha Dardi paced nervously, repeatedly checking her husband's progress at the radio control booth. "Just think what I said about that horse!" she chattered. "I just can't believe it." Then applause began to roll across the stands as Pancho, jogtrotting, came onto the track. As he crossed the finish line, Marsha Dardi broke into sobs and the children into squeals as they all ran out to pat and hug both horse and rider.
After Dr. Richard Barsaleau had completed his examination the Dardi girls grabbed Poncho's lead shank to start cooling him out. They skipped and hopped alongside the horse. "Wait a minute, girls," called Dr. Barsaleau, "that horse has come a long way. Take him nice and slow. He's a good horse, and he deserves a rest."