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Original Issue

Snowballing Through The Rockies

Sleigh racing was just a fond remembrance until it was revived by some Western sportsmen. Dispensing with the jingle bells, they now match horses worth thousands of dollars in cutters that would make Currier & Ives blanch

How could even an impatient, short-memoried country like the United States forget about cutters so quickly? Immobilized in cities by a few inches of snow, marooned in once self-reliant farmsteads by ice on rural roads, Americans now wait helplessly, fretfully, for the plows to come after a winter storm. Yet it was only a generation or so ago that winter was welcomed for travel—and racing.

In the same way that the first good snowfall was intently anticipated, the first serious thaw was nearly regretted. It was more than the agrarian certainty that the dawn-to-dusk labor of plowing, seeding, harrowing, picking, mowing, threshing, storing and preserving would begin again and continue until after harvest time, replacing the parties, dances and leisurely neighbor visiting of winter. It was the sure knowledge that the sucking mud of spring and gritty dust of summer made highroad and country lane alike less passable, less pleasant.

But when the snows arrived, from the cupola-topped carriage barns came the cheerful sleigh bells and the fast, graceful cutters, the racing sleighs. Shiny lacquer and ornate painted decoration were polished and steel runners carefully waxed. Ponderous horse-drawn rollers went out to pack down snow on the main roads, and where snow was wanting on bridges and in windblown places, it was supplied. The scene was set for cutter racing, for what man could resist matching his horse or team against a neighbor's in chance meetings on a country road?

It is not such spontaneous sport these days, but cutter racing has returned. There are now 25 associations in five states—Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Montana—that hold a full schedule of meetings all winter long. Horses are being specially raised and bred for the purpose, the most successful seeming to be quarter horses that are seven-eighths thoroughbred. The very best of them sell for up to $40,000. Phototimers, photo-camera finishes and starting gates have supplanted lap-and-tap jockeying starts and cold thumbs on stopwatches. And some bigger meets have even been televised.

Purists may be offended. Today's cutters tend to be made of aluminum, fiber glass or elaborately transmogrified oil drums. Worse, many places where the sport is now popular have had little snow in recent years, and drivers have resorted to putting their cutters on wheels. Some younger participants in the more snow-barren associations refer to the sport as "chariot" racing, the connection with Currier & Ives cutters being totally lost. They assume either that the idea recently sprang full-grown from some fertile young brain or conversely that it must have been exhumed from unimaginable antiquity. "It goes back to the Romans, I think," said one innocent. "You've seen the movie Ben Hur, haven't you?"

But for an association located deep in the snowbound Rockies, there is no mistake about the continuity with sleighing. Steamboat Springs, Colo., home of the Yampa Valley cutter racing association, is such a place. In that part of the state the roads were not plowed in wintertime until 1932, and the mail and everything else traveled by sleighs. In fact, as late as 1961 some people used cutters on their trips to town.

Snow in quantity—it falls eight, and sometimes nine, months of the year—makes the area a fine place for cutter racing, and last February it was the site of the annual Wyoming-Colorado interstate championships. Eleven feet of dry, flaky stuff that the Chamber of Commerce calls "champagne powder" had dropped on the town by the week of the big meet. Wayne Light, weather watcher for the local Steamboat Pilot, reported that only a little over two feet remained. But it was obvious a good deal more was on the way.

The fairgrounds where the cutter meets are held is close by Steamboat's lighted slalom ski course and one of the U.S.'s best ski jumps. Up the mountains march miles of massive black-green spruce in military formation. In the blinding white snow banked high along the quarter-mile track that brilliant Saturday, crystalline sparkles flashed reflections from the sun. Through their holiday glitter ran an exciting, familiar-unfamiliar pattern of hoofprints and interswitching runner tracks, a white-on-white carving.

Teams of horses in full harness, dozens of them, hitched to an eclectic lot of cutters, furthered a sense of the simple horse-drawn past. Ben Clinton's glossy black team—colt and dam—particularly disjointed time. The horses wore a white harness decorated with royal blue tassels and pompons, handmade by a wooden-legged driver known locally as Old Cedarfoot. Esthetically, the best of the cutters was a red sleigh on tubular aluminum runners that belonged to Fear Ranches of Big Piney, Wyo. Now-arcane talk of singletrees and doubletrees and neck yokes pleasantly punctuated conversations as leathery hands deftly knit characterless straps into complicated harnessing.

A season-long series of races and a qualifying meet at Casper had winnowed the Wyoming contestants to the best of some 200 teams; and the redundant little blizzard of the previous two days had kept many of the drivers who enter mostly for fun off the long, lonely highways. Sandy-haired Jim Toomer from Wyoming's Bridger Valley was the probable favorite. He was driving a pair of red-blinkered bays named Spick and Spook that had been salvaged out of a bucking string. The team had been winning all over Wyoming and at Casper had averaged 23 seconds flat for a quarter of a mile. The recognized world record in cutter racing is 21.58.

Toomer's closest competition was expected to come from Wayne Sanford, an Eastern-type horse fancier and gentleman rancher from Alcova, Wyo., with a brown colt named Roman Sandal Harlow and a gelding, Rusty Rainbar; Joe France, a stockman from Alcova, driving a sorrel pair called Flashy Failer and General Bar; taciturn, scowling Bub Mathisen from Lander in the Wild River country, driving a sorrel stud and gelding, Speedy Lick and Tina's Sleeper; and his older brother Red Mathisen from Pinedale, with blacks called Hawk and Little Lick.

Rusty Baker, handling Rusty's Vandy and Kaweah Bar Bird, was acknowledged best of the Colorado entrants. There were sentimental favorites, too, like Glen Chivers, who advertised his business, Chivers Casing Crews, on the side of his cutter. And Gillis Mathisen, who had brought no fewer than three teams. And rancher Clarence Wheeler, whose twin nieces, girls with long rust-colored hair and violet eyes, rode his cutter to the starting gate.

Perfect weather warmed the enthusiasm of the paying customers, who sat on bales of hay during the Calcutta betting that precedes each of the races. Teams were "sold" two and three times at $40 to $80. Seldom did the chanting auctioneer have to interrupt his singsong to comment on the merits of contestants, for everyone at the meeting seemed familiar with the stock. Ten percent is deducted from the Calcutta pools to pay for a post-meet dinner dance and to help defray drivers' travel expenses. Winners get no more than $20 apiece, sometimes as little as $1.50.

Matching the teams as closely as possible keeps the Calcuttas, and the races, exciting. It gives the slower entrants incentive to improve and drives the better competitors toward faster times. Two of the best teams, the ones belonging to Baker and Sanford, were scheduled to meet in the first race. Betting was even as the horses slowly pranced past the shopping spectators. Turning back toward the start as the second auction ended, the teams gingerly, skittishly, edged into the gates. Volunteers held each horse's head straight. Abruptly, the starter yanked down on a rope, four steel gates opened with a crash and a red flag dropped. The teams bolted out of the gate, their cutters flying through the air behind them. A cutter is airborne for at least 12 feet on a good start, and sometimes as far as 20 feet. Two racing teams in full gear at breakneck gallop are a crashing, slamming, shouting spectacle. Raw, hurtling power is the appeal, not grace. The noise alone jolts the track. The teams thunder down on the spectators like freight trains.

Slashing into the hard-rolled snow, the horses' hooves cup out huge snowballs, icy missiles that fly back at the drivers, raising welts and cuts. Sometimes horses stumble. Sometimes a harness strap or even a singletree snaps under the tremendous strain, sending all that power out of control. Sometimes a cutter will tip. Only once, however, has riding the tail of so much galloping horsepower fatally injured a driver. That time—at a Cheyenne race meeting last year—a driver was spilled under an oncoming team. His rib cage was punctured in 18 places.

Sanford's team barreled down the straightaway at close to 40 miles an hour and crossed the finish line in 23.61, a good length ahead of Baker. That was to be the best time of the day but not the best race. In a neck-to-neck, whip-to-whip duel that ended just shy of a dead heat, Bub Mathisen gritted past Jim Toomer by a nose in 24.02. And Red Mathisen's blacks beat Joe France by another nose in 23.93.

The travel-brochure day and the good times put the racers in euphoria for the banquet and dance. The men changed into beaded Western jackets and slicked up their pompadours. The women wore brocade dresses. All hands headed for the Down the Hatch Room at Steamboat Springs' Harbor Hotel.

Gillis Mathisen was soon telling how Gene Fullmer, the former boxer, had a ranch in Utah and was a confirmed cutter racer, and about how his sister-in-law had won $200 in the Calcutta. "But money has little to do with it," he said. "The one place we get any money, at Cheyenne, I won $1,400. But we split the purse equally, and I wound up with $300. It's the people and the fun in cutter racing; we have something in common. People have to be able to think to train a horse, not just turn it on like a snowmobile."

Talk turned to Doc Utterback, a local veterinarian who has a zany idea that all "chariot" racers should wear togas and Roman helmets to promote the sport, an idea that he sometimes puts into practice. "His helmet is a bean pot with a scrub brush on top of it," said Ray Wardell, a banker from Big Piney. "He comes out of races with his cape covered with mud. I admit the crowd cheers for him twice as loud as anybody else, but cripes! People think you're two-thirds goofy for running for half a free drink, anyway."

After dinner and many affectionate introductions and acknowledgments, a country-Western band tuned up for a foot-stompin' dance. Sitting it out in a corner, Clarence Wheeler reminisced, "I remember when there were more dances out in the country schoolhouses than there were in town. It was nothing to go 10, 12 miles in a cutter every Saturday night. Folks would rent one similar to the kind doctors used on calls and come out from town. We had charcoal-burning foot warmers. My granddad ran one of Steamboat's three livery barns, Roper's Central, right where this hotel stands. He sold out in 1926, but I kept one team and drove them to school every day. No later than November you'd jack up your car on blocks and forget it until May. No way you could travel but horse and sleigh."

Although the dancing and talk went on till the small hours, everybody was out at the fairgrounds the next afternoon by one o'clock. The same could not be said for the sun. During the night temperatures had dropped to 30° below, and at 1:30 it was about 6° with a stiff breeze. These people who normally are phlegmatic about cold were hopping up and down and complaining energetically to warm themselves, their weathered faces alarming shades of purple and red. Auctioneer Darwin Lockhart needed a lot of cajoling to heat up interest in the Calcuttas.

But the best races, grouped at the beginning of the program, matched the fastest times of the first day and were so hotly contested that they rekindled excitement. Toomer's reformed bucking horses beat Baker by one-hundredth of a second in a time of 23.08, the best of the championships. Bub Mathisen's sorrels scrambled past Joe France 24.02 to 24.08. Red Mathisen, going off as an underdog to San ford, was clocked in exactly the same time, 23.98. Only the photo-finish camera showed Mathisen the winner.

After that, until Clarence Wheeler upset Chivers in the last race, cups of hot chili and coffee from the Kiwanis concession were a great help. But as the last teams were slipped out of their tugs and loin straps and walked, breath steaming in the zero cold, men with hundreds of miles of icy road to drive lingered surprisingly long. The romance of runners on squeaking snow and the muffled hooffalls of dark horses gliding over smooth whiteness seemed to hold them. Despite the occasional wheels and bicycle banana seats and oil-drum origin of some of the cutters much of the scene was out of old lithographs and brought to mind what British Writer George Makepeace Towle saw when he described an American winter: "On some cold November morning you wake up to hear, in every direction, hundreds of liquid tinkling bells. You glance out of your bedroom window; the earth is clothed, the houses are mantled with a heavy feathery crust of snow, and hither and thither are jingling sleighs, the whips are lustily cracking, the horses themselves feel the infection in the air, and run briskly, jumping and bounding as if they too rejoiced that the snow had come. Sleighs of every sort and size; shell-shaped sleighs, lavishly adorned, brass-rimmed; heavy square sleighs, full of buffalo robes and wrappers; sleighs which are but carts on runners, in one of which your milkman dashes up, and from which he brings out his long tin can...great excursion sleighs, painted gaudily and with quaint figureheads...."

And cutters, racing.