Only 75 of the 160 equestrians who began the Tevis Cup 100-Miles-One-Day Trail Ride from Truckee to Auburn last weekend were able to finish, thanks largely to temperatures as high as 110 degrees along the Western States Trail.
But Yountville’s Jennifer Waitte and her 9-year-old Arabian mare, Czoe, survived the blistering heat in style. Riding with Moraga’s Jenni Smith and Stella, a 9-year-old Arabian mare owned by Waitte, they were the race leaders until Rusty Toth of Durango, Colo., galloped passed them with just five miles left and pulled out a comeback win.
Waitte finished second — by far the best finish ever by a Napa Valley resident in the 59 years of the world’s oldest and most prestigious 100-mile horse race, which annual attracts riders from all over the world.
She did it aboard the same horse she rode in it last year, the same horse that was pulled at the 85-mile checkpoint because of lameness.
“I’m not bothered by the heat and my horse does well in the heat. It wasn’t a factor for us. Comparatively, last year was more humid,” said Waitte, the general manager and caretaker of horses at Tamber Bey Vineyards in Yountville. “I learned a valuable lesson from the mistake I made last year. I was pulled at Francisco’s because I let my horse stand too long to eat and she got a cramp in her shoulder. This year, I kept her walking while she refueled. I even hand-walked her out of that vet check with a flake of hay in my hand and kept walking until she had consumed it all.”
The previous best Napa Valley finish was the seventh turned in by Lindsay Graham in 2006.
It was the ninth Tevis Cup appearance and sixth official finish for Waitte, whose previous best finish was a ninth in 2009. In 2011, she Stella to an 18th-place finish.
Riders started at Truckee’s Robie Park at 5:15 a.m. Saturday and needed to finish at the American River Canyon Overlook in Auburn in 24 hours of riding time or less, between veterinary checkpoints, to officially finish and earn a brass belt buckle award.
Waitte arrived at 10:29 p.m. Saturday, bettering her previous personal record by three hours. She thought she might go home with the ride’s other coveted trophy, the Haggin Cup. That goes to the rider whose horse is in the “most superior physical condition” among the top-10 finishers after the ride. But it went to the eighth-place finisher. Toth won the Haggin Cup last year.
Although Toth snatched the victory away from her, Waitte was happy for him — partly because he and riding partner Kevin Myers of Durango, who finished fifth, are friends of her and Smith, and all four are members of Team Easyboot.
This is the third season that Waitte and Smith have been training and competing together. They started training for this year’s Tevis Cup in January and competed in three 75-mile races, finishing second and third at a February race, and first and second in ones in April and May.
“Our training focused on heat and hill riding,” said Waitte, who bred and raised each of their horses. “We did a lot of miles on Mount Diablo and Mount St. Helena in 100-plus degrees. It was our goal to start and finish together. We rode the entire course together with the exception of the stretch between Foresthill (68 miles in) and just past Francisco’s, where she caught up with me again.”
Toth still had his saddle off his horse when Waitte and Smith left the last vet check with six miles to go, and he left two minutes later.
“We headed for the Highway 49 crossing at a fast pace, assuming he would try to catch us,” Waitte said. “He left that vet check at a full gallop, and galloped all the way to the finish. When he caught us just before the Highway 49 crossing, we elected not to give chase. Jenni and I were on the home stretch with two good horses. We knew we would finish well and finish together.
“I never go into Tevis looking to win. It’s bad luck. It wasn’t tough at all to get passed by Rusty. Rusty and his partner Kevin are serious competitors. I had them picked as the winners before the ride started. When I left Foresthill in first place, I knew they were just a few minutes behind me and I assumed they would catch me. I was actually resigned to that thought. My horse, though, wasn’t, and I never saw them until I was leaving Francisco’s.”
Waitte was known as Jennifer Nice until she married Barry Waitte — vintner and proprietor of Tamber Bey Vineyards — last year after five years together.
“He was my biggest supporter and helped me every step of the way. I could not have done it without him,” she said of her husband. “He was the lead sled dog of the amazing crew that Jenni and I had this year. We are in the process of opening a new winery in Calistoga — it opens in September — and he had to put his own riding interests on the back burner this year because of the project. He would often work seven days a week while I was out training for Tevis.”
In fact, Barry Waitte showed Czoe at Sunday’s judging for the Haggin Cup because Jennifer had a knee injury.
“I have been holding off having surgery until after Tevis,” she said. “I can ride, but I can’t run.”