And they’re off!
Chariot racing a long-time winter tradition in Wyoming
Riverton — Mention chariot racing and it conjures up images of the Roman Coliseum and scenes from the 1959 classic movie Ben-Hur. Few realize that chariot races take place every winter right here in Wyoming.
However, the approximately 100 people who gathered on a recent warm, sunny Saturday west of Riverton knew. They came to watch and participate in the Wild West Carnival Chariot Races presented by the Wind River Chariot Racing Association.
Chariot racing has evolved a bit since its time as the most popular sport of the ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine societies. At the time it was often dangerous to both driver and horses but still generated strong spectator enthusiasm.
“Ranchers originally started the sport for something to do on the weekends,” explains Leo Seely of Lander. “The meets are normally two days, with each team racing once each day.”
Seely has raced since 1962 and has traveled all over the Rocky Mountain West to chariot racing meets. While the sport started as cutter races during the winter months, most racers switched to wheeled chariots but the meets are still held during the cold season.
“Used to be we’d rope on the horses one day and race them the next. My first team was off the Red Desert and they didn’t really know how to run,” Seely continues. “Now a lot of recreational riders are involved and are racing two- to three-year-olds and then selling them to the flat track once they are seasoned to the starting gate.”
Seely’s team was recorded with a radar gun at about 45 miles per hour once at the Dubois Buffalo Days in August. Leo Seely’s son, Tom Seely, now does most of the driving for his team.
“I didn’t pull my whip,” Tom Seely says of his most recent Riverton match. “If I had wanted to go faster, I only needed to hit that horse twice and this one once and hang on.”
Normally the two-horse teams are matched two at a time on a straight track measuring 220 to 440 yards.
“The chariot and the driver have to be at least 278 pounds,” says Marvin Heyd of Glenrock. “It doesn’t matter if you are heavier. You can tie a full rain barrel on the back if you want.”
Heyd’s aluminum and fiberglass chariot tops out at 65 pounds. Leo Seely and Heyd are the oldest, and the longest racing, chariot drivers in Wyoming, both having started in the sport in the early 1960s.
“I race registered Quarter Horses that have a lot of Thoroughbred influence,” Heyd explains. “I look mainly for a horse that wants to run. I’ve been racing this particular team for three years.”
“I used to run Division One teams, but decided to slow down a bit with my current team as I’m getting old, you know. Lately, though, my team has been winning regularly. I’m not sure what is up with that,” he says.
Heyd exercises his team with a hot walker and his 1978 Chevrolet Blazer, leading the horses one at a time and doing the quarter mile circuit of his corrals at about 22 miles per hour.
“They dance a lot, they love to run,” Heyd says. “I rarely drive them at home as they mind pretty well. Also if you race twice a month you don’t have to do a lot to keep them in shape.”
Races have been held throughout this season in Gillette, Glendo, Torrington and Saratoga, plus Dubois and Riverton. Recently the chariot racing meets have been hampered by bad track surfaces and losing permission to use certain tracks.
“Currently there are about 30 teams here in Wyoming,” says Randy Kintzler of Riverton, who has chariot raced since 1979. “Ten years ago there used to be 90 teams, it seems to be a dying sport.”
But not if Randy’s daughter, Ashlee Kintzler, has anything to say about it. Ashlee Kintzler began racing as soon as she turned 16, the minimum age allowed in the sport, and became the youngest female racer in the world. Not only is she competing among men twice (and three times) her age, she managed to defeat several of them all the way into the World Championship of the Cutter & Chariot Racing Association held in Ogden, Utah.
“I’ve been around chariot racing since I was in diapers,” says Ashlee, now in her third season of driving. “Last season I ran Division One in Wyoming, which runs about 22 to 23 seconds. I then ran Division One at the World, which is a flat 21 seconds. I should have run in Division Two according to my times.”
To qualify each team has to have six outs, or gates, to make the World. The third, or alternate, horse on the team must have three outs. With two outs at a weekend race, a team needs to attend at least three races per year. This is to ensure that teams are not taken to the World without running that season.
When the drivers are asked “Why chariot racing?” their replies vary, but include the speed, the horses, the friends and the family involvement. However, chariot racing in Wyoming can be summed up with the shouted “Good luck, John!” and “You too, Randy!” as the last teams of the day are loaded into the starting gates.
Wyoming’s state meet will be held the first weekend in March in Torrington, where it will be decided which teams will head to the World.
Melissa Hemken is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.