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Agoura Equestrian Endures Test to Win Third Sierra Marathon

Times Staff Writer

In the nation’s pre-eminent endurance horse race, horses and riders plod along a 100-mile trail over the Sierra Nevada, zigzagging through pristine pine forests and jagged canyons. The ‘49ers traversed it with thoughts of gold just over the next ridge. The Indians went before them.

Only half of the 260 entrants usually complete the one-day marathon in Northern California. To win the race, and not just finish it, is something that sticks with a horseman the rest of his life, said Boyd Zontelli of Agoura.

On Saturday, Zontelli won the 31st running of the Tevis Cup, his third victory in the race.

He and his horse, Rush Creek Hans, a sturdy, 13-year-old Arabian previously used as a cattle horse, left Squaw Valley in the Lake Tahoe area before dawn, ascended to Immigrant Pass and then pushed westward on to the watery reaches of Last Chance, a fresh-water spring used to refresh the horses.

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Race Ends in Auburn

From there it was over Deadwood Trail down to Eldorado Canyon, below sea level, where “the heat just boils,” Zontelli recalled.

Finally, they passed the crumbling, abandoned mining camps at Dardanells Creek, forded the middle fork of the American River, and made it to the small town of Auburn, northeast of Sacramento, the race’s end.

“You think you’re back in the pioneer days,” Zontelli said Tuesday. “There’s no cars, no politics, no business angles--just lean horsemanship.

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“It’s more than just getting out of the office. It’s good for the soul.”

Zontelli, a 42-year-old industrial real estate broker based in Woodland Hills, tracked the course in 14 hours and 45 minutes, four hours more than the record-setting time of 10:46 he set on Rush Creek Hans in 1981. He said the race was on a more humid day this year, and that spots wet from rain slowed them down.

‘Just You and Your Horse’

“There’s something special about being at the starting line and knowing you’ve got 100 miles of rugged country in front of you, knowing it’s just you and your horse.”

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He gives much of the credit to the horse. His name derives from the animal’s birthplace at the Rush Creek Ranch in Nebraska. The ‘H’ in Hans represents the 13th year in the breeding cycle at the ranch.

“It’s a rather unpretentious name, but he’s an incredible animal,” Zontelli said.

In 1979, he rode Hans’ older brother, Rush Creek Eaton, to his first Tevis Cup victory. Saturday’s win made Zontelli the first person to win the race on two horses.

Owns Nine Horses

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Zontelli has handled horses since his youth in the lake country of northern Minnesota. He now owns nine horses on his seven-acre ranch nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains.

His daughter, Cheyenne, 13, negotiated 50 miles of the course this year before her horse was pulled. In 1984, however, she completed the race, placing 11th in a field of about 250.

In order to safeguard the horses from fatigue and injury in such an endurance race, veterinarians check the animals at five points along the trail. Horses deemed unfit are pulled from the race and trucked out.

Only 122 of the 260 entrants finished the race this year, according to Tevis Cup organizers. Zontelli’s prize was a gold medal engraved with the image of a Pony Express rider.

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‘You’ve Got to Be One’

“There’s no equestrian sport in the world where you need to know your horsemanship so well,” Zontelli said. “Everything has to fit perfectly and the rider has to ride perfectly. You’ve got to be one with that horse.”

The slightest problem in preparing the horse may lead to an unexpectedly early finish. If the hoof is cut crookedly for horse shoes, added stress can injure the leg joints. An imperfectly fitted saddle will leave sores on the animal’s back. They are problems that usually don’t surface on a 10-mile jaunt, Zontelli said.

In preparation for the race, Zontelli participates in some 50-mile endurance races during the year, and rides the horse for 10 or 20 miles daily in the month before the contest. Weight, chiefly in the form of the saddle, is minimized.

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Once the race commences, riders constantly check for wear on their horses, particularly dehydration stirred by hot stretches of the course where temperatures can soar to 115 degrees. To check for dehydration, Zontelli presses his fingers against his horse’s gums, turning the area a pale white as the blood flows to the sides. If more than three seconds pass before the normal redness returns, the horse needs water.

Zontelli said he knows from experience when his horse is running tired. “You have to feel the way they step. They lose their zeal.”

Just as in a running marathon, pacing and rhythm are all-important in endurance racing, Zontelli added. And, when the going gets steep, Zontelli gets off the horse.

“I hold on to his tail and he pulls me up the trail. What’s beautiful about this sport is that what’s important is what’s functional.”

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