Hidalgo: A Film or Flimflam?

Peter Harrigan, [email protected]
Publication Date: 
Tue, 2003-05-13 03:00

JEDDAH, 13 May 2003 — When it came to endurance racing Frank T. Hopkins just could not get enough.

The purported horse race from Aden to Syria in which Hopkins pitted his mustang against pureblood Arabs was just one of the events in the saddle he claims to have run — and won.

“Hopkins competed in and won over 400 long-distance races, including a legendary 3,000-mile endurance ride across the Arabian Desert in 1890 on his mustang stallion, ‘Hidalgo’”, states the opening page of the Frank Hopkins website, quoting the US Remount Services Journal of 1936.

The races run and won by Hopkins make up, to say the least, an impressive catalogue. If substantiated, they place Hopkins well at the head of horseback-endurance riders in history. In Hopkins’ unpublished autobiographical manuscript, he claims to have participated in 289 races in the US, 11 in Mexico, 68 in Argentina, 38 in Japan, three in India, four each in Italy, Russia and Singapore, five in France, three in Germany, just one in England and an astonishing 14 in Mongolia.

None, however, cap the shimmering 3,000-mile annual classic, “The Ocean of Fire” race to which Disney has now hitched a ride with its forthcoming movie “Hidalgo”. The 1890 race went under starter’s orders in Aden and Hopkins passed the finishing stone, somewhere north of what is now Saudi Arabia, just 68 days later. He came in 33 hours ahead of the next horse.

John Fusco wrote the script for the Disney film. As a researcher and film writer, he is a two-time winner of the National Cowboy Museum and Western Heritage Center’s Wrangler Award. He wrote the script of “Young Guns,” “Thunderheart” and the Oscar-nominated “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.” He was also initially listed as the owner of the domain name frankhopkins.com and noted as its administrative contact.

“I’ve been researching Hopkins life for more than 12 years now and compiled research from more than 15 well-respected historians that verify this story,” Fusco is quoted as saying in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter on March 13 this year.

“Hollywood knocks itself out trying to race the competition in doing movies based on well-known historical figures,” says Fusco. “Frank Hopkins is proof that the greatest stories still remain hidden under the corner of this big dusty American throw-rug, and one only needs to look under there to find undiscovered characters and fresh inspiration.”

Hopkins apart, there’s a few other dusty curiosities crawling under the rug waiting to be shaken out.

As well as spurring his mustang to victory in (to be exact) 452 endurance races around the globe, Frank Hopkins also has an impressive list of other achievements. He claimed to be the most famous dispatch rider in the West, an associate of Buffalo Bill Cody and one of the “cowboys” from the Congress of Rough Riders of the World performing in Buffalo Bill’s internationally famed Wild West Show. He says he was Chief Crazy Horse’s protégé, put on a two-hour equestrian performance before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle and helped famed plainsman Buffalo Jones capture and tame the first buffalo.

Hopkins also said he served with the Pinkerton detective agency, was a secret agent of the US government during World War I, a guide in the Grand Canyon for big game hunters including novelist Zane Grey, and once charged up San Juan hill with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. All this, of course, was in addition to mentoring Billy the Kid.

With all those endurance miles and victories under his belt and other eclectic equestrian activity, it’s small wonder that Disney has sunk over $80 million into “Hidalgo,” with megastar Viggo Mortenson playing Hopkins and Omar Sharif as one of the Arab riders. If he has so many global miles in the saddle why does Frank T. Hopkins not head up the role of honor of the Long Riders Guild, the world’s first international association of both past and living equestrian explorers and long distance travelers?

“Because his equestrian exploits are a tissue of lies,” says Basha O’Reilly, one of the Guild’s founders.

“I’ve made Long Rides in both Russia and Mongolia and I was stunned to read Frank Hopkins’ unlikely claim to have ridden from Germany to Mongolia during winter time — in a few days. Our amazement grew when a couple of quick telephone calls to State historians in Galveston, Texas and Rutland, Vermont revealed the race that Hopkins claimed he won between those towns had never taken place either!” she says.

“A third telephone call to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center confirmed that we had accidentally uncovered a massive equestrian hoax, as the curator informed us there were no records of Frank T. Hopkins meeting Buffalo Bill Cody or working for the Wild West Show. From then on it went from bad to worse, as we discovered that we could not verify a single one of Hopkins’ exaggerated claims.”

Another endurance race Hopkins claims to have won was over 120 miles — between the towns of Williamantic and Manchester in Connecticut. The map shows the distance as less than 15 miles. But what of the veracity of the 3,000-mile Ocean of Fire race across Arabia?

Fusco took the story as fact and it is now the cornerstone for the “Hidalgo” movie, which Disney is marketing as “based on a true story”.

According to Fusco’s Frank Hopkins web site and the Disney pre-release “Hidalgo” blurb, in 1889 Hopkins was with the Wild West Show at the Paris World’s Fair, where he met an Arabian businessman called Rau Rasmussen.

Rasmussen dominated camel freighting around Aden in the southern tip of Arabia. He was a lover of fine horses and had (naturally) heard about Frank Hopkins and his mustangs. Consequently, Rasmussen told Frank about an annual 3,000 mile endurance race in Arabia. In the past, only desert-bred Arabians had competed. But now Rasmussen was anxious to pit an American mustang against the Arabian horse.

Bankrolled by Bufallo Bill’s Congress of Riders of the World, Hopkins shipped three of his mustangs to Aden. His favorite was a pinto stallion called Hidalgo. Around 100 horses lined up against Hopkins and Hidalgo. Yalla!

On the 68th day, having raced across Arabia, Frank and Hidalgo reached the finish stone of the 3,000-mile ride. “Hidalgo had lost considerable weight, but Frank had Hidalgo rested and well fed when the second rider reached the finish stone 33 hours later. Only three other horses technically finished the race. The Arabian horsemen praised Hidalgo for this wonderful performance.”

Three thousand miles? Given as straight a “course” as practical, that would put the finishing stone somewhere on the northern shores of the Black Sea. Unless wily Arab race officials (determined to thwart the American) that year set the long course and insisted that riders progress first along almost the entire south coast of Arabia, hang a sharp left at Muscat and then head northnorthwest. That might — with a few more detours round jebel and sand dunes — just have notched up 3,000 miles to a finishing stone somewhere in Syria.

It does not take long to debunk every aspect of Hopkins’ concocted Arabian adventure. Whether or not Hopkins had honed his skills of horsemanship as a dispatch rider in the US Army or in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, the average Arab could not care less.

But when it comes to a story that involves Arab horses in Arabia and a race that never was, it’s a different matter.

Dr. Awad Al-Badi is the director of research at the prestigious King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. He is also an authority on Western travelers to Arabia over the centuries and has traveled across Europe in search of their records and journals.

With little time for impostors and frauds in this field, Al-Badi has rescued from obscurity several real long riders, equestrian enthusiasts, experts and travelers to Arabia of those times.

“There is no record or reference to Hopkins with or without his mustangs ever having set foot on Arabian soil. The idea of a historic long distance Arab horse race is pure nonsense and flies against all reason. Such an event in Arabia any time in the past is impossible simply from a technical, logistical, cultural and geopolitical point of view. It has never been part of our rich traditions and equestrian heritage,” says Dr. Al-Badi, who has edited and translated four volumes of accounts of travelers to Arabia and has a further four on the way.

But Disney and researcher-scriptwriter Fusco are sticking to their guns claiming the Arabian race happened. Referring to critics who debunk the Ocean of Fire Arabian horse race, Fusco told Arab News: “I have two inside counters to these wild punches regarding the Arabian race in question.

I spoke with a well-known historian today who told me that there is no way that race records would have been kept in Arabia in 1890.

He also had some interesting insights into the British involvement in that race. I also spoke with Dr. Deb Bennett from the Equine Studies Institute (author of “Conquerors”) who was my advisor on “SPIRIT: Stallion of the Cimarron.” Dr. Deb nearly fell over at the claim that long-distance racing was not a part of Arab culture. “Long-Distance racing has ALWAYS been practiced in the Middle East,” Deb wrote me.

Whether, as some will say, “Hidalgo” is just a film, scriptwriter-researcher John Fusco and Long Riders Basha and CuChullaine O’Reilly have made their stand and are now staking their reputations with opposing views on the veracity of Hopkins’ claims and The Ocean of Fire race.

(To be concluded)

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