Chariot racing once provided midwinter thrills in Colorado and Wyoming
August 7, 2015
Steamboat Springs — Leo "Squeak" Snowden captivated an audience in Steamboat Springs Friday with tales of the days gone by when daring ranchers in Northwest Colorado hitched teams of highly strung quarter horses and thoroughbreds to homemade chariots and dashed down snowy quarter-mile tracks to see who had the nerve and who had the blood.
In the 1970s and 1980s, chariot racing was a winter tradition on the old horse-racing track at the Howelsen Hill Rodeo Grounds in Steamboat as it was in nearby Wyoming towns like Rawlins, Saratoga and Lander.
The thrilling sport spread west to Vernal, Utah, and Elko, Nevada, where the World Championships once stretched over two weekends. But those days are mostly gone in Colorado, while the sport carries on through the World Championship Chariot Racing Association in Utah.
Lucky for us, Snowden's wife, Alice, helped him write and compile his memoirs, newspaper clippings and photographs from 35 years of chariot races into three-ring binders that now reside in history museums in Craig, Hayden and Steamboat.
Snowden, a retired longtime employee of the U.S. Forest Service, reigned over chariot racing as one of the most sought-after drivers. Many enthusiasts of the sport didn't race their own horses, but turned to wiry men like Squeak, who had a special affinity for the animals. It was nothing for Squeak Snowden to race five or 10 different teams in a weekend. He wasn't paid, but his motel and meals were covered.
"I never owned a team, but I drove for other people for 35 years, mainly for Rusty Baker, here in town, him and the Wheeler boys,” Baker said. “I drove Art Hudspeth's team and many others all over this country. I guess I was lucky because I had a pretty good winning streak."
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Racing for Baker, Snowden once won 32 out of 34 races he entered over the span of two years.
"I guess I was lucky," he said with characteristic modesty.
Snowden grew up in the Elk River and Pleasant valleys of Routt County, where horses were always part of his life.
"I rode a horse to four different country schools," he told his audience Friday during the Tread of Pioneers Brown Bag Lunch at the United Methodist Church. "I was in a lot of kids races and cow horse races. I was raised right up with the racing end of it."
In Snowden's recollection, the first chariot race ever held in Steamboat was actually a cutter race (on sleigh runners rather than wheels) that was held in front of the Fairview neighborhood" on the county road."
"I guess it wasn't the best thing — traffic and whatever," he said. “The next few years we run up at the airport. Frank Stetson, Sr., Doc Utterback, Darwin Lockhart, Clarence and Dean Wheeler were the ones that really got it started. The cutters were neat to run, but you sure ate a lot of snowballs coming off them. They hammered you sometimes."
Whether the horses were hitched up to cutters on runners or chariots on wheels, pilfered from old motorcycles, the contraptions were homemade and unique. A chariot racer needed an axle, a platform to stand on that was wrapped in sheet metal (cut-down oil barrels worked OK) and a tongue to hitch the harnesses to.
The primary role of the drivers was to keep their horses calm on the trip up the track to the starting gate and focused in the gate before bursting out of the start, hopefully on the same lead.
"Rusty's Gambler's Nod and Snazzy Rip — that was my favorite team," Snowden said. "They were hard to drive, and they weren't in stride, but I won a lot of races on that team."
When a pair of thundering chariot teams broke out of the gate at Howelsen Hill during Winter Carnival in the early ’80s, it was a quick trip to the finish line. Snowden said in the upper classes, teams typically finished in 24 to 25 seconds. He can recall finishing in 21 seconds and change on a very good day.
"When them horses start out of that gate, they go a zipping," he recalled. "I've had them pull the chariot plum off the ground for a little ways. They break hard. I held onto my lines and threw slack when their front feet hit the ground."
Snowden has an encyclopedic memory for horses and duals on the track, like the time he was driving Baker's big brown mare paired with a stud horse.
"We got hooked up with a guy out of Montana whose friends had been talking about how bad he was going to beat Baker's team because that mare was washed out," he recalled
Squeak Snowden taught them a lesson that day. Pressed as to why he won so many races on so many different teams, he finally admitted having better-than-average horse sense.
"I guess I could kinda understand horses. I kinda had a feel for them," he said. "I could get out of the gates better than most of 'em. There was a lot of races won right out of the gates."