Chariot races draw teams from everywhere

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— Peace Please and A.J. Spurs know the routine.

More food and more running indicate a chariot race is approaching, so when owner and racer Shane Yeager mixes things up for Peace Please and A.J. Spurs, the horses are attuned to the changes.

"They know what's going on," Yeager said. "Some can count the days."

Chariot racing was formally introduced into the Winter Carnival slate of activities in 1987, but other races are held before and after the February town celebration.

It is the Winter Carnival races, however, that draw the largest crowds and largest field of competitors.

"You can get so close to the action that snowballs will hit you," Yeager said. "That's what we get when people talk to us about the races. They can't believe how close they can get."

While Yeager admits most people's notions of chariot racing are images straight out of Ben-Hur, that isn't what the local competitions are all about.

The Roman style of racing uses four, two-horse teams racing seven laps around an arena. The Western version pits two teams with two horses apiece against each other in a quarter mile straightaway in Romick Arena.

Prize money is awarded, but the Dean Wheeler Memorial Belt Buckle given to the 10th-place finisher is equally coveted.

Although Wheeler passed away before chariot racing was officially introduced to the Winter Carnival, he was largely responsible for introducing chariot racing to the Yampa Valley in the late 1950s.

When Wheeler raced he often finished in the middle of the field, which is why the award, given annually since 1982, is handed to the 10th-place racer.

Along with more than a dozen local teams slated to compete in the Winter Carnival, Yeager said he expects numerous teams from Denver, Wyoming and Utah to once again make an appearance, largely because of the prizes awarded.

This year's chariot races are on Feb. 8 and Feb. 9 at Romick Arena. The races are scheduled to start at the conclusion of the street events on both days.

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