Cruising with 200 horse power

Imagine this…. more than 200 riders on equine boldness and beauty creating a sea of bobbing lights from their helmets heading up the hills at midnight, and at the crack of dawn riding like the wind.
As they move through the forests and over the beaches of our western Fleurieu coast we think we can hear the Chariots of Fire theme music. Yes, there is a touch of romance here; the excitement of riders and horses testing their endurance for the glory of winning the 2017 Tom Quilty Gold Cup.
But as a dozen riders from overseas and more than 200 from around Australia gather at Wirrina Cove ride base on Friday, July 7 to present us with real life drama embracing the event’s theme of One horse, 100 miles, One day, the anomaly with this race is that everyone who finishes is regarded as a winner.
In this new age where the welfare of the horses is rightfully at the forefront, this really is about a rider and a horse caring for each other through the dark of the night, chill of the morn and the challenges they confront.
The emphasis is clear: to complete is to win. There are no dramatic scenes of horses crashing with exhaustion as portrayed in that 2004 so-called biographical western film Hidalgo, which historians later rejected as complete fabrication.
Our event has its real life magic starting with the legendary RM Williams having asked his great mate Tom Quilty, a station owner and bush poet, to chip in $1000 to launch the event in 1966. It has rotated among the states since it was held in Gawler in 1986, and in South Australia again in Mount Pleasant (’92, ’98, 2011) and Port Elliot (’04). The original Gold Cup now resides in the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, in Longreach, Queensland, and every rider who completes the 160km within 24 hours receives a Tom Quilty silver buckle.
The Wirrina event is expected to attract 220 riders and horses with about another 600 support staff, family and friends. For many, it is the annual family holiday. It has been two years in the making with the help of amazing cooperation and help from landowners and local businesses.
The Tom Quilty is always five legs of decreasing distances. This time, riders will assemble at Wirrina, head up the hill through the Second Valley forest almost to Yankalilla, down to the beach for a 2km stretch, and through Delamere. The views over the Fleurieu Peninsula are spectacular, extending the tourism significance.
TQ17 event director Jean Sims has been involved in endurance riding since her primary school days in Gawler alongside her brother Bill Harbison, who has also made a valuable contribution to the sport as an equine vet.
“At Wirrina we will compete over a 40km loop before coming back into camp where the horse is closely checked by a vet for 10 elements, things like hydration, temperature and lameness,” Jean said. “If the horse fails any of them then it is disqualified.
“The riders care so much about their horses that they insist on pulling out of the event at the slightest doubt. The horses must be five years old before they can compete because of the growth factor; ensuring there is maturity and bone development. In thoroughbred racing the horses are only two or three and they are being pushed to the limit.
“An enormous amount of training goes into the preparation for the event. You get through the actual ride with a lot of adrenalin. You are working preparing your horse all day and you might sneak a couple of hours sleep before you get up at 11 at night.
“You saddle up, make sure your helmet light is working and head out at midnight. You are constantly looking for danger for you and your horse… branches, potholes, big stones; anything that maybe a hazard. It’s great just riding through this country. You are out in the forest, the bush or the beach; it’s just magnificent.
“The Tom Quilty is special because you are out there and it’s just you and your horse. You have got to know your horse, manage your horse; whether it’s not particularly good on hard or high ground. You’ve got to work with him and ride and manage him. It is a great sense of achievement that you have worked together and got through by taking care of each other’s short comings.
“For the people back at camp it’s a long hard night, standing around for 24 hours trying to stay awake waiting for your rider to come back in. They all have a support crew, at least one to help them strap their horse… unsaddling, washing down the horse, putting a rug over and taking it to the vet ring.”
The Tom Quilty has its uniqueness, like having Colorectal Surgeons as a sponsor. Imagine if they had the naming rights for the AFL. There are also many other major sponsors including OSO Arabians (NSW) and IRT (International Racehorse Transport).
Given the nature of this event, there are also countless characters and classic stories, and heroes like Tom Males, who earned 21 Quilty buckles. And then there’s our own pint-sized Bob Gurr, who didn’t start endurance riding until he was 60.
At 82, in 2014 Bob fulfilled his dream of competing in a Quilty, driving by himself with horse in tow to Wagin, Western Australia. It made him the oldest to have competed in the event, and yes, he earned a silver buckle by completing the endurance test in style. Amazing.
It followed his drama-packed Quilty in Mount Pleasant three years earlier when at a quarter to 12 at night there was no sign of him so they organised a search party. He had fallen off, his light wasn’t working and he was lost.
Jean recalled: “We got Bob back on his horse and sent him off again, but unfortunately he was a quarter of an hour too late. He was shattered. The look on his face was disheartening for everyone, but that is the rule, and he accepted the decision. He still completed the 100 miles and his horse was still fit, so he was a real winner anyway.”
Jean added that over the years there have been some remarkable tales of people just getting back on their horse and completing the event. The elements, however, beat them all one year in Tasmania when for the only time in Quilty history it was called off halfway through because of three feet of snow.
“There was another time in Tasmania when they had a snow fall and Bill (brother) was helping with the course,” Jean said. “They had to change the course at the last minute because of unexpected weather and he and two other fellows rode like the wind – on motorbikes in front of the horses hammering up reflective arrows as fast as they could go with horses cantering behind them.”
The Tom Quilty Gold Cup is indeed a special event, highly respected worldwide. It probably doesn’t have a huge public following because it is not easy to watch.
However, you are more than welcome at the Wirrina base when the riders come in at their 40km intervals. There, you will see riders soldier on oblivious to their aching muscles and possibly frozen bones. ‘Tis the fun of competing; the adrenalin rush, and we hope our dear Bob, who is still going strong but not competing these days, finds his way to this wonderful event.