There are not many events in the Quercy that attract such an international attendance as the Montcuq endurance horse race, that takes place the first weekend of November, ever since 1977, when Les 2 Jours de Montcuq was founded by Pierre Passemard. It has seen riders from far and wide; among the competitors are citizens from Australia, America, Russia, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Andorra Switzerland, Italy and UAE. Only world-class riders enter this grand classic 2-day endurance race that covers some of the most rugged terrain in the region.
The preparations begin several days before the weekend of All Saints Day with the assembly of the portable horse stalls behind the Salle de Fete of Montcuq. Already, a careful observer can see several horse vans parked near the gym and some very fit and beautiful horses coming and going from their training runs. Bales of hay arrive, electric lights are set up, watering systems are installed, and names of entrants are posted up on the boxes. Race fever begins to slowly radiate the region.
Meanwhile, the house and office of Pierre and Natalie Passemard, nestled in the heart of the old part of town, becomes the local headquarters for the event, with both immerged in last minute decisions that invariably crop up, and acting as hosts to the foreign veterinarians and officials.
Over the week more and more horses arrive from all points of the compass and are assigned to a stall. The distinct scent of horses, hay, fresh manure and leather lingers in the heavy cool morning air as the mounts are taken out for exercise, groomed or fed. Frequently, one can hear the neigh and nicker of one horse to another and the impulsive stomp and snort of a stallion when another horse parades past the stalls.
By Friday afternoon all the riders and horses are gathered for the first vetting. Arabians are the most widespread breeds in endurance today, followed by Anglo-Arabs and Thoroughbred crosses; one can also find Crillos, Appaloosas and occasionally the rare Akhal Teke from Turkmenistan with its magnificent metallic shiny coat. All the entries are beautifully turned out, and appear to be proudly showing off their individual merits before the many gathered spectators, the judges and veterinarians.
After the vet check a meeting is held for all participants where the officials go over the rules of the race, mentioning any dangerous conditions that might exist on the course due to weather, and the details of the start and finish for each 100 km leg of the race. Then it is off for dinner and an early retirement to be fresh for the race the following day.
The race begins at 8:00 am Saturday in the center of Montcuq and covers the Castelnau-Montratier, Labastide-Marnhac, Montcuq segment. The horses are all relatively spirited, prancing about in the fresh early morning atmosphere as they gather and begin their slow dance towards the start behind Pierre Passemard’s vintage Fiat Panda; one can almost taste the excitement. Villagers throw open their shutters for a grandstand view or mill about on the sidewalk taking in the equestrian theater before them. The Panda moves forward at 8:00 on the dot, with some 80 horses jockeying for positions trotting or loping behind. Some of the mounts are prancing and snorting about; others calm, and one or two are highly strung competition instruments in need of a serious blowout.
The riders string out at the bottom of the village as they enter a narrow track. The first leg of the race is underway. Meanwhile, back in Montcuq the assistants and the followers scramble for their cars and vans to intercept the race at specified points along the course to water their charges and provide support for their riders. The first leg of the race is over undulating farmland and forest, a rather fast pace can be held for most of the 35 km course into Castelnau-Montratier, giving the horses a chance to unwind and settle down.
Spectators have several good vantage points along the way to watch the proceedings and take photographs, they then should make their way to the grand square of Castelnau-Montratier before the arrival of the first leg to see the preparations set up to vet and care for the participants. For once the riders begin to arrive it can all seem rather chaotic and confusing as they spill into the square, time in, dismount, unsaddle and prepare the horse for the first vet check, then take a break for breakfast. The horses have a mandatory 45-minute rest period where they are examined by the various international veterinarians, who check for metabolic health (heart rate, respiration, hydration, backaches and listen to the sound of the gut.). The mounts must be down to 64 heartbeats per minute within a set period of time (usually 30 min). When all the riders are in, the square in front of the Salle de Fete is a hive of activity, rivulets of water flow into the gutters as the horses are washed down with copious amounts of water, assistants are checking their tack, farriers are busy shoeing horses who lost shoes, reporters are taking photographs and several officials are trying to keep some semblance of order.
Teams check their departing times and soon the riders are off again in the sequence they timed in, for the next leg of 36 km to Labastide-Marnhac. This section offers a variety of terrain that is more difficult to negotiate than the first run. For spectators the event is getting more exciting and there are many good vantage points to follow and photograph the riders. By now the leaders may have broken away from the pack, making good headway over the flat terrain yet conserving their mounts for the more difficult passages that will confront them. The advantage now goes to the riders who know the course well.
The ‘Old hands’ hold their horse back, fully aware that they should conserve energy for the 100 km the following day.
The sleepy little village of Labastide-Marnhac realizes a vibrant awakening on the 2 Jours de Montcuq weekend. The Salle de Fete is bustling with activity, setting up tables and preparing the luncheon for all those engaged in the race. The extensive grounds are soon to be filled with numerous cars of the followers and officials, plus the horses resting stations. The roped off areas for the vet check and trotting are in place along with large holding tanks of water for the horses to drink and be washed down.
All eyes are eagerly scanning the horizon for the first signs of the leaders arrival and listening for the motorcycles that open the trail and herald the imminent arrival of the riders. Sure enough the bikers pull up and not far behind a string of horses can be seen cantering along the track and filing past the timers. Their grooms rush up and take charge of the mounts, unsaddling them, watering and rinsing them down before the first of 2 vet checks. People behind their computers are formulating the race standings as the times of the arrival are announced. The vets begin their work, monitoring the horses’ metabolic health and scrutinizing the trotting to reveal any lameness. Several horses will most likely be eliminated for various reasons, such as fatigue, lameness, dehydration, or a too lengthy recovery.
After 50 minutes the riders are back in the saddle and waiting to make the final 24 km run into the finish at Montcuq. It can be a fast leg of the race. Years ago, an English woman named Judy Beaumont ran her Appaloosa mare from Labastide to Montcuq averaging the unheard of pace of 23 km per hour to make up lost time and to win the race. To date nobody has beaten that time. Most of the run is along a dirt trail across a plateau, and then it is down a steep hill into the valley just below Montcuq and up a road into the town. The riders often come into Montcuq on the tarmac at a gallop to cross the finish line just after the 3 cafes on the place. Many townspeople and spectators are on hand lining the sidewalks, cheering each horse and rider as they come in. The horses are then vetted in front of the crowd and then retired for a much-needed rest to recuperate for tomorrow’s more difficult circuit. The majority of the horses finish still so fresh; their condition defying the conviction that they must be worn out after being ridden 100 km at a fast clip that day. The crowds thin out as the last of the entries cross the finish line and the day retires into night.
The weather can be very changeable from one day to the next in late October, consequently, Sunday often brings about a surprise, from heavy rains or fog to even snow, as has occasionally been experienced over the years. The early morning vet check around the stables may disqualify a few more horses due to stiffness and lameness. Then the race begins below the village, this time where they head in the opposite direction from Saturday’s start. Caution is observed at the start of the race, as the horses have to warm up their muscles from their effort the day before. On the plateau north of Montcuq there are some excellent places to watch and photograph the race, with a background of flamboyant autumn colors at their peak.
By the time the horses reach the Tournon d’Agenais-Cahors road (D656) the riders are jockeying for the best positions, keeping pace with the leaders, yet conserving their own mounts as best they can. The racers have a long hard haul in front of them when the course drops down into Lot Valley and then ascends several very steep climbs on the tract and trails towards Cahors where riders encounter another rugged climb up to Labastide-Marnhac. However, before that there is a vet check at Le Tuc camping grounds situated above Belaye, 33 km from Montcuq.
From there, the course rises sharply up towards Villeseque and then through the Cahors wine vineyards, where the pace picks up and the leaders exchange places fairly often. Again, the watchword is prudence; conserve the energy of your mount, as there are 38 km of difficult terrain to complete before the last leg from Labastide-Marnhac to Montcuq. This is a critical point in the race. It is on this leg that a horse can be broken by being pushed too hard, or be well handled to go on to finish and possibly win. The riders are by now pretty spread out, but don’t be fooled into thinking that those near the rear are no longer capable of competing admirably.
For all those waiting to see the first horses coming into Labastide the wait can seem interminable, as the time can differ considerably depending on the terrain and the state of the weather. The welcome chug-chug of the motorbikes is finally heard in the distance and all eyes are focused on the track leading into the control area to see who are the leaders. Excitement builds as the riders stream into view, some alone, some bunched together, some at a slow gallop or trot, others being led across the line unmounted. But again, don’t assume the first horses are the leaders; they might be in front on that leg of the race but be behind the actual leaders in time calculated from the previous day. There is a mandatory 50 min rest period at this juncture, where the horses are watered and washed down, groomed, fed and vetted. And don’t be surprised to see even the first horses to arrive be disqualified for lameness or poor recovery, as this can happen after they have been over the most grueling section of the course of a long 2 day race. 50 minutes later the first horses are convened at the starting line waiting for the timers to call out their number so they can be off for the final run home.
Off they dash one after another, some with seconds between them, others minutes behind. Assistants sprint to their cars and drive off to intercept their horses at predetermined points along the course to offer water if needed. Many spectators follow on into Montcuq to witness the arrival of the horses. The excitement is definitely palatable. Hordes of viewers are massed in the square of the town, some seated in the cafés, some milling about the sidewalks and streets, all eagerly waiting for the arrival of the winner.
To offer a better insight into what the finish is like, I will resort to the present tense here and recount a race I once experienced.
Hooves pound the earth like a drum roll, as the lead horse breaks from the start, then levels off, striding fluidly, running against the bit, along the plateau that leads much of the way to Montcuq. The second mount is on his way 1 1/2 minutes behind tracking the leader at a run stride for stride. Both horses race by their attendants refusing to pause for a drink. The leader keeps up his momentum trying to shake off the Arab mare behind, maybe break her by keeping up speed. However, ¾ of the way home that brave mare continues to trail him, now only about 15 lengths behind. The lead rider feels his horse still has a good deal left in him so lets him have more rein. With only 4 km left before the finish the leader is shocked to see the horse behind coming up on his flank at a surprising speed, then breezing by effortlessly, and gaining inexorably with his rider folded over the neck of the mare urging his mount on. 2 lengths then 5 then 10 as the new leader shakes off his rival, all the while asking his mount for more speed, which it bravely gives, digging in, propelling his rider forward and drawing away like an express train. His contender is far from disintegrating in discouragement and keeps up a furious pace trying to regain ground on the leader, hoping she will tire before the finish. The leader eases up along the tarmac, and does again as she descends down the steep trail to the valley, not wanting to take any chances, during which the challenger recklessly makes up ground. The leader is having none of it, picks up an extraordinary pace again, blazing along, widening her lead, not backing off one second.
Battering the pavement she races up the hill towards the town with no sign of weariness, her competitor some 30 lengths behind. The mare sweeps into town almost on top of the motorbike riders, who are bent low over their bikes riding at full throttle. The rider breaks free of both of them and gallops into the assembled gallery in the square amid roars of approval, shouting and delirious applause as the rider triumphantly crosses the finish line. 35 seconds later the 2nd rider crosses the line with another round of applause from the spectators.
There is no winner until the horse passes the final vetting. When the lead rider presents his horse to the vets, hush envelopes the crowd. The horse is fully examined and is then trotted by a lead, the Arab mare trotted by almost floating over the pavement then turns back to the vets, who unanimously nod their approval, at which the crowd shouts its support in an explosion of joy. The mare wins handily as her rival is later disqualified, it just couldn’t recover in the allotted time.
I have strived to show what the 2 Jours de Montcuq is all about. I hope I have succeeded and that this article stimulates the reader enough to come and witness the next running of the race, if you are a horse fancier, you won’t be disappointed.