Chariot Racer
Riverton Ranger Ross Giles drove his team down the stretch at Peterson Downs west of Riverton during the two day chariot races at the annual Wild West Winter Carnival.

Associated Press

RIVERTON (AP) – Teams of horses running head to head, manes and tails flying in the wind, guided by drivers crouched low in chariots set the scene for the Wild West Winter Carnival Chariot Races.

The event, according to racer Eric Kuegeler, is for anyone who “loves speed and horses.”

Kuegeler and Ross Giles, both of Riverton, are among the youngest racers in the area to take up the sport.

Both said their involvement in racing came by way of their families.

Kuegeler learned techniques of the sport from his dad, Randy Kintzler, and has been racing for three years. Giles grew up with the sport, he said, because of his grandfather, Lee, who’s been chariot racing for half a century.

This year, however, marked Giles’ first year as a driver.

“My grandpa has been racing since the cutter days,” Giles said. The races originated with horses pulling sleds. “That was back in the olden days, when folks just raced for fun.”

Today, chariot racing is serious business, with racers investing time and money in their sport. They travel from town to town competing for points as a means of making it to the World National Cutter & Chariot Finals set for April in Ogden, Utah.

Horses are even bred especially for the sport.

“They’re called Appendix,” Kuegeler said. “That’s the favorite for most racing teams. Appendix are a mixture of quarter horse and thoroughbred, good for chariot racing because the quarter horse breaks harder and the thoroughbred has more of a fifth gear, which gives a kick at the finish.”

In preparation for racing, he said, horses are exercised four to five miles a day, trained to run through a starting gate, and fed enriched, high-protein feed.

“They’re fed better than we are,” both men said simultaneously.

As for Kuegeler and Giles, they keep in shape by exercising, lifting weights and doing “lots of hand exercises with grips or a tennis ball,” Giles said.

Chariot races in Wyoming have come a long way since their beginnings in the 1930s.

The races originated in the Star Valley area, said Kuegeler’s mother, Brigitte Kintzler, who was at the track as an organizer of the recent Riverton race along with other members of the Wind River Chariot Club.

“Everything was done with horses in those days, from feeding to going to town,” she said. “There was always competition among the milk haulers to get to the creamery to be unloaded first.”

It was that friendly competition, she said, which predated the sport.

“First, bobsleds replaced creamery carts, then an official track was designated, usually down the main street of town. Sometimes, they even had to haul in snow to put on the streets to make a racetrack.”

The spring thaw and festival atmosphere is what brought chariot racing to what it is today, according to Kintzler.

“As the sport grew and began to draw crowds, the races evolved into social affairs, with other events being planned in conjunction with race day,” she said. “There would be horse-pulling matches, foot races and ski-jump races in which a saddle horse was used to pull a skier with a lariat rope over a built-up ski jump. Someone was always thinking up some new kind of sport.”

These events, often dubbed “winter carnival,” were held in towns throughout the area, usually a week apart throughout the winter, concluding with a celebration at a local dance hall.

When the races took on a more competitive flair, lighter sleighs like the cutters appeared. By then, these events had turned into community festivals and racers wanted to continue competition all year.

So, it wasn’t long before sleds were replaced with wheeled vehicles, the precursors of today’s chariots, which are pulled by a team of two horses around a track measuring 440 yards from start to finish.

By 1948, Kintzler said, an All-American Cutter & Chariot Association had been formed representing teams throughout western Wyoming and Idaho, with participants hauling horse teams 100 miles or more each weekend to race.

In 1964, the world association was formed, and the first official championship race was held in Pocatello, Idaho. Now, the sport covers six states, with a season that runs from November to April and has 22 individual associations participating.

It has become a family affair for Kuegeler and Giles. Kuegeler’s family usually runs six teams under the Spear K Stables name, with Eric racing two, and his dad running one.

The Giles family travels with eight horses competing as Rezexpress. Giles races one team, his uncles Gary Carrol and Buck Giles each race a team, and a friend, Louis Morris, now drives Grandpa Lee’s team.

Nearly 40 teams were listed on the roster for winter carnival races at Peterson Downs.

For each racing weekend like this, racers compete for placement the first day, and for best time the second day.

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Winners are the racers who finish with the top 12 fastest combined times. Though there is the opportunity to win gifts from local sponsors, like blankets and belt buckles, the ultimate goal is to earn points toward eligibility for the world championships.

Giles did not make the top 12 at the Riverton races, and got no points. Kuegeler came in first place in the second division, bringing him one step closer to the world championships, where he hopes to meet up with “the best of the best,” he said.

Both were grateful to avoid serious injuries. Two years ago, during a race in Dubois, Kuegeler’s chariot broke apart at the tongue and yoke section, where the horses are hitched, sending him rolling backwards down the track, chariot and all.

“I was lucky that time,” said Kuegeler. “I ended up with a fractured leg and cuts and bruises down my whole backside. Other than that, I was fine.”

“Except for maybe his head,” Giles said. “I think he might have knocked something loose.”

What keeps these two racers interested in racing at speeds of up to 40 mph?

“It’s the rush and the glory,” Kuegeler said.

“There is glory when you win, because you’re the jockey, the one in control,” Giles agreed. “And winning means you’ve trained well and done a good job. It’s also something you can do for your whole life. In my family, it’s a tradition.”

Racing is expensive, though.

Good horses range in price from $3,000 to $15,000 with the chariot costing about $1,500. Add in travel expenses, and chariot racing becomes a major undertaking for any family.

But both said it was worth it.

Even Kuegeler’s 11-year-old sister, Ashlee, agrees. She’s been “going to the races since forever,” she said, and plans to be a racer when she turns 16.

“It’s a little scary,” she added. “My dad broke his nose once.”

Still, she can’t wait until she is old enough to take the reins herself.

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