After nearly 100 miles and 14 hours across some of the most rugged terrain in the West, Sanoma Blakeley managed to win the world’s most challenging equestrian endurance ride by about the length of a horse.
The 18-year-old from Terrebonne held off past champion Jeremy Reynolds on Aug. 17 to win the 64th annual Tevis Cup, a 100-mile race along the Western States Trail across the Sierra Nevada from Truckee, California, near Lake Tahoe, to Auburn, near Sacramento.
“For that last 4 miles, it was a lot of winding trail in the dark,” Blakeley says, recounting the duel with Reynolds. “I really trusted my horse. We were just going as fast as the trail and the horses would allow us to go, and we passed each other a few times.”
On the uphill finish along a double-lane dirt road, Reynolds, of Dunnellon, Florida, came up alongside Blakeley, but the teenager held him off for the closest win since 1995 in the prestigious race. Blakeley’s winning time was 14 hours, 12 minutes.
“It was a full-on sprint for the finish,” Blakeley says.
Blakeley’s horse is a 10-year-old gelding named Goober, which Blakeley’s father, Wasch Blakeley, had ridden to a third-place finish in the Tevis Cup the previous year. The Blakeleys own Blakeley Endurance Stables near Terrebonne and train horses for endurance races throughout Oregon, Washington and California.
The family obtained Goober for free from a Craigslist ad eight years ago, but he was not a rescue horse, Sanoma says.
“He was well taken care of,” she says. “They (the previous owners) were moving across the country and they couldn’t take him. We did put eight years of work into him.”
Wasch calls the Tevis Cup “the Tour de France of horse racing.” Years of endurance training with Goober molded the horse into the perfect specimen to win such a race. Sanoma says Goober knows the trail exceptionally well and he is in “really good shape.”
“He’s probably been to the top of Gray Butte more than any horse in Central Oregon — hundreds of times,” Wasch says of Goober. “He’s done a lot of training through the years. He’s just a real good horse.”
Wasch Blakeley has finished the Tevis Cup five times, and his wife and Sanoma’s mother, Gabriela, has finished the race six times. In 2014, Sanoma’s older brother Barrak won the Haggin Cup, awarded to the Tevis Cup participant whose horse is considered to be in the best physical condition.
Sanoma, who graduated from Redmond Proficiency Academy in 2018, first raced in the Tevis Cup when she was 12, placing 42nd out of 75 finishers. In 2015, her horse got dehydrated and she could not continue. In 2016, her horse slipped on a rock crossing at the 64-mile point and she did not want to push him another 35 miles.
Astride Goober, Sanoma and her father knew she would have a shot at winning this year.
The 2019 Tevis Cup started with 184 horses and riders, mostly from the United States but also from as far away as China and Israel. Only 98 finished the grueling route that features more than 17,000 feet of elevation gain and 21,000 feet of elevation loss. The riders and horses descended and ascended three steep canyons in the Sierra Nevada as temperatures approached 100 degrees.
“It’s extremely hot, so they’re facing dehydration and that type of thing,” Wasch says. “You have about a 50% chance of finishing.”
“It’s a lot of downhill, which is sometimes as hard as uphill,” Sanoma adds. “There are a lot of steep drop-offs and a lot of really narrow trails.”
The Tevis Cup includes about 10 mandatory veterinary checks throughout the race, during which the riders must stop for vets to monitor the health of their horses. Two of the stops, at 36 miles and 68 miles, are hourlong mandatory holds.
Sanoma exited the final vet check at the 94-mile mark about two minutes ahead of Reynolds, she recalls.
“Everybody was cooling their horses,” she says. “We went straight to the vet, and got him (Goober) through. I knew if I wanted to win I had to make my move. About 4 miles from the finish he (Reynolds) caught me, and we were going super fast. About 15 miles per hour, which doesn’t seem that fast, but after 90 miles and it’s completely dark …
“My horse was faster than his, I guess.”