Starting traditions: Cutter racing beings in Thayne
Thayne – In the 1920s, Thayne was the first place to hold cutter and chariot races right on Main Street of the Lincoln County town.
“Chariot racing involves running two horses abreast with a chariot, that weighs about 65 pounds,” explains former racer Bill Johnson. “They run for 440 yards or one-quarter of a mile from the gates. It’s quite a rigorous activity.”
The races have intrigued spectators for many years, with deep roots in history.
In the beginning
Cutter racing is one of the oldest equine sports, believed to have its beginnings with the first Olympic games in ancient times. The 1959 epic film Ben-Hur gave the sport its modern fame.
When it began, cutter racing was simply a way to pass time during the cold winters of the 1920s.
“Farmers used to come to town with their milk, and they’d sit around drinking coffee and start to challenge each other,” explains All-American Cutter Racing Association Secretary Connie Wright. “They’d race their wagons with their work horses, and cutter racing originated.”
“They started bringing their saddle horses and lighter wagons so they could go faster,” she continues. “There is quite a history.”
In 1948, the All-American Cutter Racing Association was formed in Thayne. The association was the first in the world dedicated to cutter and chariot racing.
“They have a world championship in Ogden, Utah every year in March,” says Johnson. “There were as many as 38 associations at one time, coming from California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.”
The competition only continued to grow, as ranchers hooked their fastest horses to sleds, racing through the snow at speeds that reached up to 50 miles an hour.
Over time, lightweight cutters, or chariots on skis, replaced old, heavy sleds. In some cases, snow was trucked in for special events. As times changed, so did the equipment used. Rather than running with a traditional cutter, Johnson notes that they use chariots more frequently today.
“A cutter has runners on it, and they used to run on snow-covered tracks,” explains Johnson of the change. “They started running on a dirt track in the early 80s with chariots, which have wheels like small bicycle wheels.”
Because chariot are faster due to less friction and the track is easier to maintain, chariot racing has taken over.
Cutter and chariot racing today has grown into a fast and furious sport.
In each heat two to three teams run the straight, quarter mile race in only 22 seconds. The racing begins from gates, as are used in most horse race events. The Afton track has a three-team gate, but usually runs only two teams abreast.
Johnson says, “My dad helped to organize the events. I stopped racing about five years ago, but raced for 21 years. When I quit running, it was the first time since 1948 that our family hadn’t run.”
Though its beginnings are in Thayne, the races moved from Main Street there to the town of Afton, and events are held in communities across Star Valley, as well as in Jackson and Saratoga.
In Afton, rather than racing on Main Street, the events are held on a track at the fairgrounds. Racing is held every Saturday afternoon from Dec. 1 to the end of February.
Today only about 16 organizations are left in the world, with between 10 and 12 teams competing at the weekly events in Star Valley.
“It is not only a fun hobby, but it’s a tradition in Star Valley,” Johnson adds. “People do it to keep the tradition going to this day.”
“The guys that are still racing are really trying to promote it,” comments Johnson. “It’s really hard to get younger people involved. The older generations still run, but it’s a dying sport.”