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"The reason for putting such stuff on them is that once you're into the race, all the horses get to looking alike," says Joe Cannon, a veterinarian from Sierra Madre, Calif. Cannon is a defending champion of this race, with partner Barrie Grant, also a veterinarian from Pullman, Wash, and their horse, Boomer, a half-Arabian. "The last thing you need is to stagger up, untie some dusty horse, ride off, and then discover, just about the time he throws you into the sagebrush, that he isn't yours."
Cannon and Grant haven't decorated Boomer. They figure they know his every stance. Tie him to a manzanita bush and Boomer goes around and around it like a carousel horse, impatiently waiting for whichever of his riders is next. There are six mandatory ties in each race, "and you've got to pick just the right bush," Grant says. "Last year, one horse pulled a bush right out of the ground and ran away with it."
"Won his division, though," says Cannon. "Runaway horse pulling scenery."
Off they go, Cannon looking fresh and powerful, the network of veins standing out just as prominently on his legs as on Boomer's. The defending champs are in second place at this juncture, somewhere behind Californians Dave Poston, a carpenter supervisor in Sacramento, and Jim Howard, a phys ed instructor, and their Arabian, Novaloj, all three of whom are flickering through the trees somewhere up ahead. The lead is pretty tenuous, though: Poston has a touch of stomach flu and is carrying a container of aspirin tied to his waist with a thong; he claims that he's popping them like candy. Howard is O.K., however, and Howard has run a 2:18:06 marathon; slow for him is fast for anybody else in this race. As far as they both know, Novaloj is feeling swell.
Well, the horses obviously feel something—their sense of excitement is clear—and they come pounding up to the checkpoint all hot-eyed. They look at the veterinarians with nervous distrust. They're a bit goosey. "Oops," they seem to say, "never touch a horse there." Some of the animals lope into sight with their runners tagging close behind, wearily hanging onto the tails to be tugged along. This is perfectly legal; it would also be legal the other way around, if the people had tails.
"This is really three races in one," sighs Bev Gray, 29, a travel agent from Park City, Utah. "It's a horse race; it's a people race, and it's a horses-versus-people race. Terrific. And, golly, it only costs $50 to enter. Well, that plus 10 years off your life."
But cost be durned, it's obvious that the competitors are having the time of their lives. An air of companionship runs deep among contestants in this race, more so than in other sports. All through the week, on starlit evenings, they've been socializing, campfire-hopping, and now they're racing through a sparkling day. The spectators are friends and family; there's no drop-in crowd this high in the mountains. And if the explosions of dust aren't enough to show the way, the trail also is marked with bits of bright ribbon tied to bushes and trees, and poker chips and playing cards a racer has scattered here and there.
Someone who takes it dreadfully seriously points out that this is really an intellectual sport, not at all like, say, marathoning, in which the mind can be allowed to wander while one runs. No sirree, the rides and ties must be meticulously planned, this competitor says loftily, "because, after all, you're thinking for the horse as well. This is a serious business." And then, just about that time, a youth rides through, all brown and sweaty and bare, wearing what appears to be only a pair of Adidas running shoes and a feather in his hair and slathered with Indian war paint. Nearby, a horse stands quietly with a wet bath towel draped across his eyes, as if suffering from a monumental hangover. Rasping, dry-throated yells from somewhere: "Stop! Stop! Will someone for God's sake stop this damned horse?" Serious business, indeed.
On both sides of the trail, horses are tied to bushes and trees; they're sweating heavily in the bedlam and most keep swinging their heads to look around anxiously. All those tales told around the fires back at the base camp are obviously true—unlikely, but true. Because they race as closely knit teams, the riders and the tiers have an understandable tendency to assume anthropomorphic attitudes toward their animals.
"At the start of every race I have to turn Snicker backward, facing in the opposite direction," says Pam Wagner. "Otherwise, he'd jump the gun and go racing. He's really convinced all the other horses are wrong. Then, after everybody else starts, I wheel him around and we take off."