OGDEN -- At a signal, starting gates fly open and teams of horses bolt for a finish line 440 yards away, kicking up mud on a dirt track softened by snow.
There's a rush of pounding hooves. Tails braided with colored ribbon flash by. Turn your back for 22 seconds and you've missed it."If you're late out of that latch, goodbye mother! The party's over," the announcer says over the public address system.
Chariot racing isn't just the province of long-dead Roman centurions.
Nope, it's alive and well in the West, as a winter sport believed to have originated 70 years ago among farmers who raced their sleighs after making deliveries to the creamery in the little mountain community of Thayne, Wyo.
Today the sleighs are gone, replaced by rubber-wheeled, waist-high aluminum chariots that weigh little more than 30 pounds. And instead of races in pastures or down Main Street, there are tracks and bleachers and concession stands.
Nowhere can be seen the "backyard ponies" once used to pull the chariots; race horses off the California circuit now populate the tracks.
But it's still a Western winter sport, with races from October to the end of March. That's because chariot -- or cutter -- racing began as something ranchers and farmers did to chase away the winter blues.
"In the winter they didn't have much to do," said Larry McCullough of Pocatello, who's raced for 25 years. "It first started with cutters like they have on sleighs. They wanted to use their horses and play."
You won't find Jack Knife on many maps of Idaho. It's where Kent Brown, 52, farms in the summer. Come winter, though, when he and his wife, Janene, are not at their cabin, they hook up their cutter team of registered quarter horses.
Eighteen years ago, Brown and a friend were hunting on horseback when they decided to turn the animals loose to see what they could do. They seemed pretty fast to Brown and his pal.
"I said, 'Why don't we hook them up and run them this summer?' We got our a---- kicked. We found out they weren't nearly as fast as we thought."
Since then he has grabbed second place a dozen times and has missed only two out of about 234 races.
Janene, 45, who's raced for 19 years, loves the rush she gets when 2,000 pounds of horse flesh bolt out of the gate, even though her arms are black and blue afterward.
"But you just . . . hang on for dear life and give your horses lots of line. And when they leave the gate, you better be holding on."
There are five or six women among the 100 chariot drivers who make it to the world championships, according to McCullough, who as steward polices the 34-year-old event for the World Championship Cutter & Chariot Racing Association.
"When women started driving, they were accepted. There wasn't even a ripple," he said, unlike in other areas of society when women entered formerly all-male bastions.
Women may even have weight on their side; a chariot and driver cannot weigh more than 175 pounds.
McCullough says the sport is growing, if the number of clubs is any yardstick.
"I don't see any indication that it's dying. I probably have this year more teams running chariots that are affiliated with us than we've ever had.
"But there are changes that take place that move geographically," he said, pointing to a club that closed in western Idaho while another opened in Colorado.
The Browns, members of the All-American Cutters Association of Star Valley, Wyo., have seen that happen. Their club -- covering an area southwest of Jackson that includes Alpine, Thayne and Afton -- has doubled in membership in the past six years and will have 28 teams running this year.
The sport is going strong, agrees Victor Adams, 72, of Ogden, where the world championships will be held March 20, 21 and 26-28.
"In the world association, there are still 23 active associations in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and California and Oregon," Adams said.
McCullough calls it primarily a family sport.
"You'll get mom and dad and often grandpa and grandma and two or three kids -- sometimes seven or eight. They're out taking care of the horses. . . . Everyone in the family's involved with it. And quite a few of the kids continue."
It also is an expensive sport.
Expect to pay $1,500-$2,000 for each of two horses. Add $2,000 for special vitamins, feed and bedding; $600 for a nylon harness and $1,200-$1,500 for a chariot. The annual racing club membership is $25. The state meet costs $250 and qualifiers for the world event shell out $125.
The material payoff for winners: A few trophies. Maybe a horse blanket.
"We don't make a drop of money," says Janene Brown.
For some, racing can help their business or serve as a fund-raiser for charitable groups such as the Shriners.
"I think some of the horse trainers who race make some money by just getting their horses seen," McCullough said. "A lot of them get breeding people to breed to their stallions."
Adams, a retired Union Pacific railroader and horse breeder, drove his last race at age 62. But there have been drivers in the world championships that were in their upper 70s.
The oldest was an 82-year-old from Idaho Falls who still shoed his horses.
Adams has a former bull rider drive for him. That seems appropriate in a sport that can be hazardous.
"We've only had one fatality, but horses can get loose, equipment can break. Just anything can happen when you're dealing with these high-spirited animals," he said.
For safety reasons, the rules forbid a driver from being harnessed to the chariot.
"We do occasionally have people fall out," McCullough said, but that's to be expected in a sport "considered by most people involved with it as a semi-controlled runaway."
Yes sir, it keeps those winter blues at bay.
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