TWO WEEKS TO GO: Tom Quilty Cup winner 2018, Kristie Taprell.
TWO WEEKS TO GO: Tom Quilty Cup winner 2018, Kristie Taprell. Denise Keelan 2018

Countdown on as 300 of toughest riders get ready for Imbil

AT MIDNIGHT on Friday, July 12, more than 300 horses and their riders will take to the pitch dark tracks of the Imbil State Forest to tackle Australia's most prestigious endurance ride, the Tom Quilty Gold Cup.

Steeped in history and internationally recognised by the endurance community, this Tom Quilty Gold Cup will see riders from as young as 12 and right up to 78 years of age take on the challenge of completing a 160km course with just a headlight and their four-legged best friend for company.

This is a story of adventure; true grit; the incredible partnership between horse and rider and a passion for the sport of endurance, which goes right back to 1966 when R.M. Williams and his wife Erica established the iconic Aussie event.

Matthew Sample, the owner for Stirling's Crossing Equestrian Complex which will host the Tom Quilty Gold Cup for the first time, said he and his team were delighted to welcome what many expect will be one of the biggest event in its 54-year history.

"We're excited that the 2019 Tom Quilty Gold Cup is coming to Imbil and expect our local population of around 900 will at least triple in the week leading up to the event," Mr Sample said.

"The who's who of endurance will be here with defending champion Kristie Taprell hoping to win her third title being joined in the field by 2016 winner Debbie Grull, 2015 winner Ben Hudson and 2013 winner Brook Sample who hopes to continue to build on his existing record of seven Tom Quilty Gold Cup wins.

"Also worth noting is the high number of juniors expected to take to the track for the first time this year which is great news for the future of endurance. We currently have five 12-year-olds nominated who all successfully completed a 160km ride last year to qualify for this event and I'm very proud to say that the youngest of these is my nephew Zac Sample who can't wait to take on his first Tom Quilty.

"There is great prestige associated with completing the ride, hence the tagline: To complete is to win, and these kids, along with every rider on the track, will be hopeful of crossing the line within the 24-hour deadline to receive a much-coveted Quilty buckle.

"On the other side of the spectrum we have Ken Gordon from Toowoomba hoping to win his second buckle at 78 years of age, having won his first at age 74. The longevity in participating in this sport is one of the main attractions and also why it's such a popular pastime for entire families.

"Those who attend will generally stay onsite at the complex alongside their horses and spend many an hour around the campfire sharing stories of Quiltys long gone across the generations.

Mr Sample is a perfect example of this with his own family being incredibly successful in the sport.

His father, Bob took home the Tom Quilty Gold Cup in 1993 in Tasmania, and Matthew himself jointly won the 2009 Tom Quilty in Tonimbuk, Victoria crossing the finish line with brother Brook, who has seven Tom Quilty wins under his belt.

For the first time, Brook will head into the forest for a Quilty with both his sons by his side. Matthew is aged 15 and Zac is currently the youngest of the 300-plus riders to take to the track at 12.

President of the Stirling's Crossing Endurance Club Kim Moir said she is thrilled with the number of nominations to date with over 300 riders registering from as far afield as Western Australia and Tasmania as well as internationally from New Zealand, Canada, USA and Estonia.

"Those who are passionate about this sport will travel to participate in a handful of iconic rides around the world and the Tom Quilty is one of them, along with the Tevis Cup in California which originally inspired R.M. and Erica Williams to create the Tom Quilty Gold Cup.

"Both cups are based on the premise of completing 100 miles (or 160km) in one day and when R.M. approached his good friend Tom Quilty about the idea in 1996, Tom donated the $1,000 which paid for the original gold cup which still has pride of place in the Stockman's Hall of Fame in Longreach.

"Over the 54 years that followed, thousands have taken to the tracks with the aim of securing a treasured buckle and joining the few elite riders who have completed the Tom Quilty.

"This year we are delighted to have endurance rider Trevor Knight perform The Ballad of Tom Quilty live at the midnight start of the ride as over 300 excited horses and their riders prepare to take to the track. Playing the ballad, either live or broadcast, is a long-standing tradition since Trevor wrote the song in 1993 and creates an electric atmosphere as riders prepare to depart.

"Those attempting the challenging 160km ride will set off at midnight on Friday, riding into Saturday morning with the winner expected to arrive at the finish line after 10 to 11 hours.  Riders are required to return to the complex for vetting every 30-40 kilometres so vets can check on the horses' wellbeing before being permitted to set off on further legs. 

"Endurance riders have the utmost respect and admiration for their horses which have exceptional athleticism, intuition, intelligence and a very competitive nature.

"Hosting the Tom Quilty at Australia's only purpose-built endurance facility is very exciting and we expect the event will bring between 2,000-3,000 people to the Mary Valley region, with an estimated economic impact of over $2million for the local economy.

"We look forward to putting Imbil on the map as a premier equestrian hub in Australia ― particularly for endurance riding ― and we look forward to the Quilty taking to our tracks for the first time on 12 July."