‘Rough Magic’ takes readers on a galloping adventure

The Mongol Derby is a 1,000-kilometer endurance race across the Mongolian grasslands on the backs of an assortment of wild ponies.

When 18-year-old London resident Lara Prior-Palmer hit the “apply” button on the derby’s website, 30 other contestants had already signed on. The August application deadline had passed and, if accepted, she’d have only seven weeks before the “start gun.” Author Lara Prior-Palmer describes herself at that age as “a bundle of urges, a series of plunges.”

I begged the publisher for a review copy of “Rough Magic, Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race.” I love horse stories, horse racing, underdogs and amazing finishes.

Before I get into what makes this story so worthwhile, let me tell you a bit about the derby.

• It is “an unsupported, one-stage race.”
• Riding without penalty is between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.
• No wake-up calls.
• Positions are policed by rider satellite trackers.
• No set route.
• At each of the 25 horse changing stations, riders pick their own mounts.
• Map books “with wriggly red lines” are supplied, but not toilet paper and other necessities.
• The derby is filmed for worldwide broadcast.
• Injuries are expected.
• Not everyone will finish.

We know before reading that Lara is the first female and youngest rider to win the race. The “rough” is how the heck she did it, and the “magic” is her writing.

The first day of the race, atop a pony that doesn’t mind being last, Lara “enters a silent tantrum,” wondering why she entered the race when she could be home sharpening pencils. Even with her GPS, she has no idea where she is. She finally dismounts and walks alongside her pony until a mounted Mongolian herder comes along, urging her to ride again and then “whips” her mount back into a trot.

Lara names each of her ponies by their looks, gaits and stamina. By day three, she finds her “legs are lead.” About the fifth day, she takes her first fall when her pony stumbles into a marmot hole. On the sixth day, she finds that she is in fifth place. She is one of three women competing, and the rider in the lead is also a young woman. On the seventh day, her mount hears the words “choo choo” – the Mongolian equivalent to giddyup – from another rider and takes off with Lara barely in the saddle.

While riding, sometimes alone and other times in small groups, the author takes us back to her family, her brothers, her dad, her Olympic medal-winning equestrian aunt and especially her mum. Her observations of her fellow riders, the wind-blown greenery, the everywhere hamsters and the dangerous rainfalls, along with her insights into why she is even in the race, are breathtakingly honest and often laugh out loud funny.

You will love this book to the last leg of the derby and beyond. I can’t wait to read whatever comes next from this talented young writer.

Sunny Solomon is a freelance writer and head of the Clayton Book Club. Visit her website at bookinwithsunny.com for her latest recommendations or just to ‘talk books.’