Modern chariot racing

A team at the 2011 Idaho State Chariot Racing Championships. Photo courtesy of Kristina Abbey

Possibly the oldest equine sport, and believed to be the sport that started the ancient Olympic games, chariot racing was made famous in modern times by the 1959 epic film, Ben Hur. But many people would be surprised to learn that chariot racing is alive and well in the West.

Begun in the 1920s in Wyoming, chariot racing was a way to pass the time during the barren winters. Local ranchers hooked their fastest horses up to sleds and raced through the snow at full speed. Over time chariot racing became more sophisticated and the sleds were replaced by lightweight cutters, which were basically chariots on skis. When there wasn’t enough snow for the cutters, it was trucked in for special events.

To alleviate the need for snow, the cutters’ skis were replaced with wheels and they later evolved into high-tech aluminum and fiberglass chariots with shocks that can be adjusted to track conditions. Today, chariot racers could spend thousands on the latest technology in chariots.

What is the appeal of modern chariot racing? Just like ancient chariot racing, the sport is rife with danger, excitement, and adrenaline. Each team has two horses pulling a chariot, and two or three teams run a straight quarter-mile race in about 22 seconds, or at roughly 50 miles an hour. There are no purses to win, but Calcutta betting is permitted. (Calcutta betting allows racers to bet on themselves, and if they win, they receive a percentage of the pool that was bet on the race.)

Modern chariot racing

A team at the 2011 Idaho State Chariot Racing Championships. Photo courtesy of Kristina Abbey

Chariot racing is not for the faint of heart. As in harness racing, horses can spook and turn over the chariot, reins can get caught on equipment, and chariots can drift into one another and crash. It’s a dangerous sport, so the participants quickly learn to have a no-nonsense attitude from the moment their horses are harnessed.

Quarter Horses, Paint Horses, and Appaloosas dominate the sport because of the short racing distance, and their breed associations have approved chariot racing as an activity that earns points and recognition within their breeds. But in the races themselves, all three breeds compete against one another. Chariot racing also gives retired sprinters a second chance to compete on the track.

Chariot racing events are held in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado from the beginning of January to late March every year, which means the weather and the track can be challenging. In Utah, teams compete against each other every weekend until the state championships in late February, and the world championships are held in late March. Not surprisingly, chariot racing requires participants to be tough and dedicated.