Josh Rhoten 2016-04-19 05:01:06
The ancient sport of chariot racing still rumbles in Wyoming, thanks to Saratoga Lions. Hand-lettered signs guide you up to the quarter-mile racetrack just outside the town of Saratoga. The words “Chariot races” are neatly printed on each one and a red arrow points helpfully. The road takes you past the city's famous hot springs and across a ridge over Lake Saratoga, opaque in the winter cold, save for the red dots of ice fishing huts. On the right, one last sign points up to the Buck Springs Rodeo Arena, a windswept patch of land that has hosted the Saratoga chariot races for 34 years in the shadow of the Snowy Range. The track was gouged out from soft dirt, then pounded flat and smooth. The paths around it are muddy from a snowstorm that has long since left for Laramie. The chariots rumble close to 40 mph. Photo by Michael Smith Cars, mostly bearing the Carbon County No. 6 license plates, are pulling up to the track, their tires sinking slightly as they come to a stop. Passengers climb out and begin unfolding chairs and unloading coolers, heavy with cans bearing blue and silver labels. Tailgating is a constant here, just as it is at the modern gladiator sport of football. Down the track at the finish line, the volume is suddenly turned up on the PA system, then down again, its operator searching for the right level. An auctioneer is working hard for every bid on the first race of the day, his voice drifting in the wind. The bids trail off as the teams, two horses apiece, trot down the track to the start. Rounding the chutes, they hold for three seconds before exploding from gate with a metallic crunch as the doors swing on their hinges. The powerful creatures are on full display as they tear and rip at the earth beneath them, each fighting for purchase as they bound forward. Their breath is hot steam. The noise is deafening. The crowd's roar of approval is whipped up and away by the wind. Just over 22 seconds later, the sprint has ended. The 34th annual Donald E. Erickson Memorial Chariot Races have begun. Any question you may have about the races, Joe Glode is the man to see for just about everything at the races. A former racer himself, he now heads up the Lions club's efforts to put the event on each year. The two-day event serves as a fundraiser for the club and it's held every President's Day weekend. Before this track was built by the club, chariots ran at the Saratoga Airport. “But it was sort of a hassle to get that track flat and maintained every year, so we figured we could make our own and keep it up a lot easier,” Glode says. “You would be amazed how much of a difference even a little extra dirt on one side or the other of the track can make to the overall times.” Competitors come from across the state and, occasionally, from Colorado. Saratoga is one of the few places in Wyoming still hosting an event, and the sport has been in a steady decline for a variety of reasons. “It wasn't unusual for us to get 60 teams in here in the past, but we are down to 21 this year,” Glode says. “A lot of people with the time and resources to train horses are more likely to do something like team roping or barrel racing because they pay out more and there are more opportunities to do it.” There are few differences between the chariots used thousands of years ago and the ones used today. They are still open-backed and light. Drivers often lean way out to flick at their teams with whips. They are not strapped in for fear of being dragged down the course. Lions ask for donations in the community leading up to the races and collect a $5 entry fee at the gate. The club also gets a portion of the “Calcutta” betting that goes on before each race and in the evenings downtown. Another $4,000 comes from the Carbon County Visitors Council to help with marketing and filling up hotel rooms. “Take away our costs and the $8,000 we pay the winners, and I would say about $5,000 goes back into the community for things like scholarships and other activities for kids,” Glode says. Stacy Crimmins, the executive director of the Saratoga/Platte Valley Chamber of Commerce, says out-oftown guests to the city were actually rather common for the races. “We advertise it regionally and across the state, and we find that people come from all over for this,” she says. “Pretty good for something that started as a way to keep busy in the winter.” After the races, Calcutta betting is the main attraction. Using an auctionbased betting style, it's popular in college basketball pools, horse racing and golf. Entrants bid to “buy” teams. The payout of the pool is based on the results of the race. In Saratoga, bids for teams normally range from $100 to $300, though when things were good it wasn't unusual to see bids reach $1,000. On this Saturday morning, many mill around the auction block, flicking bid cards and sipping drinks. Their attention is split until the last call when the chariots come trotting by, headed for the gate. That's when everything comes to a stop. Chariot racing was an extreme and dangerous sport in ancient Rome, with the very real possibility of drivers' deaths hanging over every race. Held at the Circus Maximus with 200,000 spectators, racers would make seven laps of the oval, often with 12 chariots at a time. In a collision, drivers were often bucked off, falling to the earth, where they were lucky to not get trampled. The classic scene from “Ben-Hur,” as brutal as it is, probably sells the sport short in terms of danger, but not excitement. There are few differences between the chariots used thousands of years ago and the ones used today. They are still open-backed and light. Drivers often lean way out to flick at their teams with whips. They are not strapped in for fear of being dragged down the course. There is one constant debate as the horses thunder past: How fast are they going? Lower estimates put the speed of the chariot at about 30 mph, though some drivers put it closer to 40 without a hint of exaggeration. Still, that's a high speed for something weighing about 60 pounds, balancing on smaller wheels that appear to belong on a bicycle. For 30 years, Ron Garretson drove a chariot in these races and others around the state before retiring from the sport a few years ago. He remembers when this race was one of the biggest on the circuit and attributes the dropoff in attendance to the cost of the hobby. “Of course, all hobbies are expensive; that's the point,” he says. “But you have to buy the horses and equipment. Then you have to get them here and there, give them a little food and maybe feed yourself something. That is a lot of money when you start to look at it.” The chariots and tack cost about $1,500, while the horses can run anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 apiece. The breeds most often associated with the races are Quarter Horses, Painted Horses and Appaloosa because of the short racing distance. There are occasionally thoroughbreds in there as well, and Garretson says most drivers are just trying to find a good pairing. Some teams travel from as far away as Star Valley, the birthplace of the Wyoming races. Farmers in this area along the western part of Wyoming border began racing their horses with sleds and skis, also known as cutters, around 1920. The small town of Thayne in that area claims to have hosted the very first race and now features a museum dedicated to the sport. The spirit of Ben-Hur (aka as Charlton Heston) is alive at the races. The switch to wheeled chariots came around 1980, just as the Saratoga races were hitting their stride. Wheels meant less friction and removed the need to truck in snow in a dry winter. Roy Morgan of Guernsey has been racing since 1984 and brings several teams to the few events left in the state. His father raced before him. He calls the event a good “family sport” but stressed that it was struggling to stay viable. “There are fewer events, which means fewer people come out. That means fewer young people are seeing it and becoming interested in it,” he says. “That, plus the rising cost of everything from gas to feed, has really hurt things for us.” Morgan declined to talk about wrecks that he had been in personally but says the sport wasn't that dangerous. What he would say is that it is an adrenaline rush like no other. “Everyone I have ever taught how to do it or let do it has wanted to try some more,” he says. “It's unreal.” The paying crowd may drift toward the finish line, eager to see the beasts in full stride, but the old hands know the action is at the starting gate. There are few places on the track where you can feel the horses' energy and power quite like the chutes. “They are supposed to stand in there for a three count before being open, but man, am I glad I'm not responsible for that,” says Lion Randy Raymer. “It is so close with these guys that anything off with that makes people a little grumpy.” Raymer heads up a group of club members and other drivers who climb on the chutes as the teams pull in. They do whatever the driver needs them to, from steadying the animals to raking over the three-inch divots the horses leave in the ground when they burst from the gate. Teams come and go about every 15 minutes, launching themselves two abreast down the track. The pattern resets with the next teams pacing to keep warm during bidding, trotting up to the gates, holding, then flying. With the last run of the day over, everyone pulls out to head for a nap or break before meeting again for a community dinner and fresh round of Calcutta betting in the evening. Sunday's weather promises to be warmer. “The second day is always better I think,” Raymer says. “That's when the horses know they are racing. That's when they really get going.” Reprinted from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle with permission of the APG Media of the Rockies, LLC, copyright 2014. Digital LION View a video of the 34th annual Donald E. Erickson Memorial Chariot Races at lionmagazine.org.
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