OMAK, Wash. – Out of the blackness, a cacophony of whoops and war cries rose up from the Okanogan River, past the medics along the riverbank, the crowd lining the steep pitch of the dusty hill and the string of riders waiting at the top.
Ralph Moses, a 32-year-old Colville Indian, sat on his mount, Patch, a 7-year-old gray quarter horse.
Tied to the horse’s mane were three eagle feathers. Moses knew that the feathers would protect them. He was not as certain about the other 16 riders and their horses.
He breathed in the warm night air and let out his war cry – woo-woo! – the sound bouncing down the river.
The horses snorted and pawed the loose dirt. The riders yelled at the starter, and he drew his gun and fired.
Moses urged Patch to the front. Eighteen-year-old Tyler Peasley and his horse, Rueben, pounded along beside them.
George Marchand, a three-time champ, and his brother, Tony – the stitches in his left eye still fresh – raced their horses to the edge of Suicide Hill, and in the moment they exploded across the lip of the hill, the horses seemed to be frozen in the August air, the stars in a black sky in front of them, the waters of the Okanogan waiting 200 feet below.
For 70 years, the Colvilles have run their horses off Suicide Hill, in an event billed as the world’s most dangerous horse race. It is the daily culmination of the four-day Omak Stampede and Suicide Race, and each summer it brings thousands of people to this tiny town 50 miles from the Canadian border.
“There’s no other hill,” said George Marchand, a 29-year-old veteran rider as he prepared his horse, Stoney, on Thursday afternoon. “This race is something deep down inside me.”
In a city where one in four people lives in poverty, where the 2000 U.S. Census found a per-capita income of $13,472, there is also the lure of the prize: a pot of $15,000, plus two hand-tooled leather saddles. In four lightning-quick races, a man can earn as much money in a long weekend as some earn in a year.
The first three races begin late at night, with only a few spotlights to illuminate the path. Today the final race will be held at 2 p.m. and end with the crowning of an overall champion.
The race – which has been the subject of documentaries, magazine articles and a feature film – has raised the ire of animal-rights activists who have recorded the deaths of 20 horses in the past two decades. Last year, three horses died in the first race.
“We just find it to be an inhumane and cruel event,” said Robert Reder, regional director for the Humane Society of the United States’ Seattle office, who brought a team of veterinarians and two cinematographers to the race. “The human is asking the animal to do something way beyond its capability. No horse wild or domesticated would choose to plummet down that hill.”
The Progressive Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, a Lynnwood, Wash., nonprofit, has posted several videos of past races on its Web site.
In one film, the horses are deep in the Okanogan, the current drawing them swiftly down the river. A rider holds tight to the reins as his horse sinks into the water, thrashing its head violently, ears tucked against its head, teeth bared, mist spewing from its nostrils. Downstream, a second horse struggles as boats rush by and workers try to slip a noose around its neck.
The horse ducks beneath the water, once, twice, then a third time. The water turns calm.
Libby Wilder, a PAWS spokeswoman, said both horses drowned in the river that year.
“The name itself implies that someone is going to die,” Wilder said. “Traditionally, it’s the horses.”
But the race is wildly popular in Omak, where people stand rows deep on the banks of the river, straining for a better view, and local stores proudly advertise their support.
The race has its roots in a similar event the Colville once ran near Keller, Wash., a four-mile endurance course flooded decades ago by the Grand Coulee Dam.
In 1935, a rodeo promoter pitched a “suicide race” to boost attendance at Omak’s festival. It would be a revival of the Old West, no-holds-barred horse race.
Time and social pressures have forced some changes – riders can no longer carry wooden clubs to beat each other and the horses; they must be 16 years old; they must be sober. Horses must pass a swimming test and a physical.
But in the pitch of the hill and the speed of the horses, the danger remains.
In an exhibition race last week, Tony Marchand, 26, tumbled from his horse and was stepped on by another. By Thursday, a moon-shaped bruise sat under his left eye, and the side of his chest had turned dark purple.
Marchand, who runs in endurance races across the West, said the Suicide Race is “better than sex. It’s a rush.”
The Marchand brothers know intimately the risk of horse racing. Sixteen years ago, their father, Jim, died in an endurance race in Wellpinit, Wash., after a horse fell on him.
George Marchand, himself a father now, tied an eagle feather – one that had never touched the ground – on to his horse for protection.
“I just pray, I just pray for my own horse,” said George.
The race is sacred to him. In 1999, when the Colvilles boycotted the race after a dispute with organizers, George Marchand – the racer in the hat that reads “Wimps Need Not Apply” – broke down in tears.
“We get one race a year,” he said. “This is our race. This is our tradition.”
He was excited about his horse, a muscular quarter horse thoroughbred that he spotted in Montana early this year.
“I saw him and I knew I had to have him,” George said.
He smiled and lit a cigarette. He would not finish Thursday’s race.
In a corral near the river, Peasley, a wiry high-school wrestler, prepared for his first race.
“All I can think about is winning,” Peasley said. “I want to be in front, and I want to be safe.”
For Moses, Thursday’s race was about family and tradition. His father, Gabe, won 12 races. Ralph sat out last year’s race to mourn the suicide of his brother Wes, a former champion.
Moses remembered one year when his brother could not ride.
“He’d say, ‘Bro, I can’t do it this year. You got to be up there for me,’ ” Ralph said. “Now, I’m the last Moses riding – until my boys or nephews are ready.”
As Thursday’s rodeo drew to a close, thousands of people began to gather along the Suicide Race course. Police lined the bank, and a boat patrolled the water. Tribal drums and war cries echoed in the river bottom.
Suddenly, the sharp report of the starter’s pistol rang out. Onlookers could hear the sound of hooves, and in the darkness, the horses leapt from the ridge in a blur.
A rider near the back of the pack fell high on the hill, somersaulting down the 62-degree slope.
From the lip, the hill draws like a funnel to the water’s edge, and as it narrows, the horses bunched together, throwing riders in a tumbling whir, leaving bodies lying prone on the riverbank and medics scrambling to attend.
A horse flipped end-over-end, then staggered to its feet, riderless.
While the hill provides the dramatic wrecks, it is in the water where a strong, stout horse can pull away from the others as it fords the river, then rises up a path that leads into the bright lights of the arena.
Moses and Beasley entered the water first, their horses slamming into the water as tribal drums provided a steady soundtrack. They streaked across the shallows, Moses thundering ahead.
Within seconds, they were across the river, and onlookers at the river listened as the announcer boomed the name of “that old veteran, Ralph Moses.” Then Beasley. Then Tony Marchand. Someone helped George Marchand, tossed from his horse at the bottom of the hill, up out of the water.
On the riverbank, as medics carried out a stretcher for an injured rider, a security guard tried to stop people from taking photos.
Police helped disperse those who crowded the fence to watch. Someone cut the floodlights, leaving the medics to tend to the downed rider in the blackness at the edge of the river.
A spokesman for the stampede said two riders were treated and released from a local hospital. He said he had not heard that any horses were harmed in the race.
Back at his trailer, Ralph Moses smiled broadly. He had won the sixth race of his career. He had $1,500 for his pocket. Another $2,000 would go to the horse’s owner.
“The horse risks his life but so do we,” he said. “You have to ride as one. I finally found my match.”
He was gracious in victory, crediting his horse and the other riders. But he could not hide his smile. He was, in his words, king for the night.