Tradition, excitement at Indian relay race

$25,000 prize at Chippewa Downs

A rider clings to a fast horse while attempting to move into a bareback riding position. Scenes like this are common during traditional Indian Relay races. Indian Relays are set for this weekend at Chippewa Downs in Belcourt. Submitted Photo

BELCOURT – It is an exciting combination of tradition, daring athleticism and powerful horses. Indian Relay races will be held at the Chippewa Downs track this Saturday and Sunday.

Last year Chippewa Downs hosted its first ever Indian Relay race with a total purse of $6,000. The event proved incredibly popular with horse racing fans, so much so that this year’s purse has jumped to $25,000.

“Last year it was the biggest crowd we’ve ever had at horse racing in Belcourt,” said Stuart LaFountain, Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribal councilman. “We ran it as a trial run. It was such a big draw and attraction and will be bigger this year.”

Doug DeMontigny, Chippewa Downs race chairman, said he expects 14 to 15 teams to compete in this year’s Indian Relay races. The Indian Relay will be staged following the regular racing card at Chippewa Downs. Sunday’s final run of the Indian Relay will pay $10,000 to win.

Indian Relays have become increasingly popular at several tracks in the United States. One rider uses three different horses to complete three full speed laps around the track. Riders jump off one race horse and then onto another in front of the grandstand. On the track for each rider is a team of three assistants whose duty it is to hold, start and catch horses for their rider. The leap from one horse to another must be done in a designated box similar to a baton exchange zone used in track and field.

“It’s not for the feint of heart. These guys are athletes. Horses come in at 30 miles per hour,” said LaFountain. “This was a tradition for Native Americans long before gate races were ever here. It’s a tradition that’s coming back.”

Tradition is emphasized. Riders are required to be traditional in appearance.

“These guys wear head dresses and war paint,” said LaFountain. “Even the horses are painted up. We’ve got some world champions coming for this. We’ll have the best of the best at our track.”

“It was a real crowd pleaser last year,” added DeMontigny.

Some of the Indian Relay teams expected to compete, said LaFountain, will be coming from Crow Agency in Montana. They will be competing at Canterbury Downs in Minnesota following the weekend ride at Chippewa Downs. The competition has the potential to evolve into greater opportunities for Indian Relay riders and fans at Chippewa downs in the future.

“Our tribe has been invited to be part of the Native American Triple Crown,” stated Montigny. “At the end of this race season we’ll know if we move forward on that.”

The Indian Relay riders and horses won’t just be competing on the track this weekend. A parade of riders will be held where the crowd gets involved by cheering for their favorites in different categories such a regalia worn and traditional horse appearance.