It's race day at Howelsen Hill.
In the minutes leading up to a race, you may see two drivers and four horses make a casual parade down the long snow-covered racetrack behind the Howelsen Hill rodeo grounds toward the starting gates.
For them, it's just the preparation for another race, but these drivers are carrying on a tradition that stretches generations.
At the other end of a track, an auctioneer rattles off numbers faster than most horses can run to take a few final bets in a flurry of fast-paced exchanges as the Calcutta action draws to a close before the actual race begins. Back at the other end, the horses are loaded in the starting gates; and the drivers and starter wait for a sense of calmness to come over the animals. But most of the good teams are anticipating the moment when the steel doors of the gates will swing open with a clang and any sense of tranquility vanishes in a cloud of flying snow, spinning wheels and fast-moving horses.
It's that moment, that explosion, that has attracted drivers and racing fans in the Yampa Valley to the sport of chariot racing for years.
"It's a rush," driver Lance Hoffman said. "You can go from zero to 30 (mph) in the first four strides of the race."
In that brief moment, the driver must remain focused to keep the course true because there is another team sharing the track, which is just 25 feet wide.
Cathy Duncan, who has been racing chariots for 30 years, says the driver must deal with two horses and three mind-sets during the 440-yard journey from starting gate to finish line. It only takes a few seconds, but it's part of a tradition that began in the early 1900s in Steamboat Springs.
Hoffmann and Duncan are part of a shrinking group of drivers who are working to keep the sport alive in Northwestern Colorado as part of the Yampa Valley Cutter and Chariot Racing Club.
Duncan said that just a few years ago, there were 200 teams at the end-of-season World Championships. Last year, there were only 100.
The Yampa Valley Club also has taken a hit in the past decade. Today, there are just 12 teams in the Yampa Valley Cutter and Chariot Racing Club.
Duncan isn't sure why the club's numbers have fallen in recent years, but she can venture a guess.
"It could be the expense or the fact that ranches are disappearing around here," Duncan said. "Most chariot racers come from second or third generation ranches."
It was Duncan's love of horses that drew her to the sport, but she admits that the thrill of blasting out of the starting gate keeps her coming back. "I've been around horses my whole life, and I've been chariot racing for as long as I can remember," Duncan said.
She said she started with saddle horses and then just kept moving up to better, faster horses.
"I didn't ski, and chariot racing allowed me to work with my horses all year-round," Duncan said.
She admits that the sport comes with its share of work, too.
Good drivers can spend hours each day working with their horses and thousands of dollars in feed, equipment and travel expenses. Not to mention the hours spend cleaning stables and repairing chariots.
"We don't do this for the money," Duncan said. "The people who race chariots love the sport. That's why we do it."
The club will hold three races in Steamboat Springs in January. The first races are scheduled for Jan. 15 and 16. There also will be events Jan. 22 and 23 and another Jan. 30.
Races will take place during Winter Carnival on Feb. 12 and 13, and this year's state championships are scheduled to be held in Steamboat on Feb. 26 and 27.
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