Mar 6, 2012 - By Joshua Scheer, Staff WriterBlustering wind Saturday did nothing to deter a crowd from converging on the Paradise Valley racetrack west of Riverton for the 2012 Wyoming State Chariot Race Championships.
Standing on a platform, an MC auctioned off bids for each heat. Most of the crowd huddled out of the wind beside the booth where money was exchanged, the MC's microphone cord dangling above them.
Before each race, the teams -- two horses and one driver on a two-wheeled chariot -- walked in front of the bidders so that they could inspect the animals and make an educated bid. The Calcutta-style betting continued until the horses were at the gates at the far end of the track.
Behind the starting gate, the horses stamped in anticipation. As they bolted from the start, the drivers hollered and yelled, thrusting the horses forward at speeds of approximately 40 mph.
The races were quick. The horses averaged times in the low 20-second range down the quarter-mile track.
Some wins were obvious, while others ended within hundredths of a second of each other, requiring a look at the finish-line photograph to be sure.
"That was beautiful," said one man in the crowd after a particularly close run.
Bill Miller, of Riverton, and his wife, Gina, have been watching chariot races in Riverton for roughly 10 years.
"I like getting in on the Calcutta," Bill Miller said.
Most teams had clever names -- Leather & Lace, Equine Addiction, Tuf-N-Nuf -- while others simply were named after their owners.
The weekend's races were incident-free for the horses.
But the season wasn't kind to all teams.
"It's been rough," said Glenrock driver Clancy Henderson.
He and Saratoga racer James Olguin told stories of broken legs, lacerations, and swapping horses with other teams just to compete. One of the horses on Henderson's team, Call Me Anything, was running with a swollen leg. He said the majority of the injuries don't happen on the track, but in the barn.
"They're hot-blooded horses," he said, noting that the animals tend to rough each other up.
Henderson said the horse stalls could be lined with mattresses, and they'd still find a way to get hurt.
"The main thing is they don't come back being crippled every time," said Rock Springs driver and team owner Mike Johnson.
Johnson has been racing for more than 12 years with the support of his wife, Peggy, and his daughter, who has her own team.
He got into chariot racing "by chance" after moving to Rock Springs and helping another racer with his team. Eventually he bought his own.
Johnson said the races are an extension of his love for the horses.
"We kind of treat them as part of the family," he said.
The Seely family of Lander has been involved with chariot racing for decades. Leo Seely, who owns a team that raced over the weekend, has been driving since 1962. He is 79 years old.
While he didn't race in the state competition, that doesn't mean he's done with it. He drove a team in Saratoga just the week before.
Leo's son, Tom, was his driver for the Riverton races.
"It's a lot of work," Leo said. "You work with them two or three hours every day. You exercise them every day."
He does not, however, run his horses hard in training.
"I never drive them unless I'm going to a race," Leo said.
Tom ran two teams over the weekend, Beyers Special (his horses) and Leo Seely (his father's).
"For me, it's just an adrenaline rush ... especially when you get to running side by side," Tom said.
Lee and Melissa Griffin's team, Quick N Hot, won first place in Division 1, the fastest grouping, with an overall time of 41.70. Second place was Melanie Graber's Tuf-N-Nuf at 42.49. Gilliams Pretty Pennies, driven by Lara Gilliam, took third at 42.62.
Dave Brandt, of Dubois, was given a sportsmanship award, and Roy Morgan, of Guernsey, was given an award for horsemanship.
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