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Enduring 100-mile horse ride honors pioneer

By: Gus Thomson of the Auburn Journal
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Thanks for checking out an Auburn Journal story online. In some cases online publication is delayed so you won't get the story at the same time it is published at the e-edition pay portal or the print edition, available by subscription or single copy sales. This story initially appeared July 16.  

It’s a timeless moment between horse and rider.

At the end of the 1960 Tevis Cup 100-mile horse ride, after finishing second by a nose, Wendell Robie extends his arm and his canteen to his mount, Nugget, for a well-deserved drink of water.

The memory of Robie, who first organized the ride from the Sierra to Auburn in the mid-1950s, is being honored this year with a new trophy that captures a memorable moment in time. The trophy will be awarded to horses that have successfully completed five rides totaling 500 miles.

The list now for the initial award – with names going onto a granite base below a bronze bust created by Auburn artist Diana Hiiesalu (pronounced Hee-Es-Alu) – is more than 40 names. They’ll receive medallions to mark their Robie Trophy achievement and their names will be added to the trophy’s base.

All that will occur after the ride, which starts at the Royal Gorge parking lot and ends with a triumphant arrival at the Gold Country Fairgrounds’ McCann Stadium.

Start time is 5:15 Aug. 5 and the Robie Trophy will be part of the awards banquet the next day. The Robie Trophy joins the Tevis Cup’s other major awards – for the first finisher – and the Haggin Cup – to the rider whose horse is in the most superior physical condition of the first 10 horses to cross the finish line.

Hiiesalu is well-versed on Tevis Cup legend and lore – including Robie’s larger-than-life presence over the event. She’s finished the 2011 and 2012 rides and has five horses at her Auburn property, which doubles as her studio.

“I’ve been a Tevis junkie since the mid-1980s,” Hiiesalu said. “I feel totally blessed to be able to create this sculpture.”

The idea of a trophy honoring Robie has been bandied about with Western States Trail Foundation board members for several years. Hiiesalu gave the Tevis Cup organizers some impetus to go ahead with the idea by telling the board in October that she would do the work for free if the foundation paid for expenses and foundry costs.

Hiiesalu got the go-ahead in April and with a deadline of June 1, she put in up to 13-hour days to get the detail right on a model for the bronze using oil-based clay.

To get that accuracy on the 14-inch-high bust that will top a base of honored names, Hiiesalu pored over 150 photos, used real-life bits and saddles to eyeball correct perspectives from all angles and recruited Tevis Cup photographer William Gore as a real-life model.

Hiiesalu is a 1983 graduate of the Pasadena Art Center College of Design, the same school Auburn-based artist Doug Van Howd graduated from. Like Van Howd, Hiiesalu said, the idea of getting the details perfect was ingrained in her as a student at the college.

“It’s got to be accurate, when it’s something like this that’s such a huge part of Auburn and Tevis,” she said.

The riders whose horses reach the 500-mile club won’t be able to take home the new “Robie.” Like the Tevis Cup and Haggin Cup, it will be displayed at Auburn’s Placer County Visitor Information Center.

But along with a medallion, they can also consider a limited edition casting of the Robie bust that Hiiesalu will be offering. Just 55 are going to be cast, with the initial nine – after the trophy casting – selling for $6,500. After that, the price – complete with a granite base – will rise to $8,800.

“When the last one is cast, the mold will be destroyed and the bust will never be made again,” Hiiesalu said.

What’s 500 miles?

At the Indianapolis 500, the winning speed over 500 miles has averaged as high as 180 mph.

“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” is a 1988 song by the Scottish duo The Proclaimers popularized in the U.S. after appearing in the Johnny Depp movie “Benny & June.”

“500 Miles” is also a folk song from the early 1960s, performed by a host of folkies, including Peter, Paul & Mary, The Kingston Trio and The Journeymen.

Drive to Carlsbad in Southern California from Auburn and you’ll have traveled the same amount of miles as Robie Trophy honorees – 500 miles.

Thanks for checking out an Auburn Journal story online. In some cases online publication is delayed so you won't get the story at the same time it is published at the e-edition pay portal or the print edition, available by subscription or single copy sales. This story initially appeared July 16.