Toomer's closest competition was expected to come from Wayne Sanford, an Eastern-type horse fancier and gentleman rancher from Alcova, Wyo., with a brown colt named Roman Sandal Harlow and a gelding, Rusty Rainbar; Joe France, a stockman from Alcova, driving a sorrel pair called Flashy Failer and General Bar; taciturn, scowling Bub Mathisen from Lander in the Wild River country, driving a sorrel stud and gelding, Speedy Lick and Tina's Sleeper; and his older brother Red Mathisen from Pinedale, with blacks called Hawk and Little Lick.
Rusty Baker, handling Rusty's Vandy and Kaweah Bar Bird, was acknowledged best of the Colorado entrants. There were sentimental favorites, too, like Glen Chivers, who advertised his business, Chivers Casing Crews, on the side of his cutter. And Gillis Mathisen, who had brought no fewer than three teams. And rancher Clarence Wheeler, whose twin nieces, girls with long rust-colored hair and violet eyes, rode his cutter to the starting gate.
Perfect weather warmed the enthusiasm of the paying customers, who sat on bales of hay during the Calcutta betting that precedes each of the races. Teams were "sold" two and three times at $40 to $80. Seldom did the chanting auctioneer have to interrupt his singsong to comment on the merits of contestants, for everyone at the meeting seemed familiar with the stock. Ten percent is deducted from the Calcutta pools to pay for a post-meet dinner dance and to help defray drivers' travel expenses. Winners get no more than $20 apiece, sometimes as little as $1.50.
Matching the teams as closely as possible keeps the Calcuttas, and the races, exciting. It gives the slower entrants incentive to improve and drives the better competitors toward faster times. Two of the best teams, the ones belonging to Baker and Sanford, were scheduled to meet in the first race. Betting was even as the horses slowly pranced past the shopping spectators. Turning back toward the start as the second auction ended, the teams gingerly, skittishly, edged into the gates. Volunteers held each horse's head straight. Abruptly, the starter yanked down on a rope, four steel gates opened with a crash and a red flag dropped. The teams bolted out of the gate, their cutters flying through the air behind them. A cutter is airborne for at least 12 feet on a good start, and sometimes as far as 20 feet. Two racing teams in full gear at breakneck gallop are a crashing, slamming, shouting spectacle. Raw, hurtling power is the appeal, not grace. The noise alone jolts the track. The teams thunder down on the spectators like freight trains.
Slashing into the hard-rolled snow, the horses' hooves cup out huge snowballs, icy missiles that fly back at the drivers, raising welts and cuts. Sometimes horses stumble. Sometimes a harness strap or even a singletree snaps under the tremendous strain, sending all that power out of control. Sometimes a cutter will tip. Only once, however, has riding the tail of so much galloping horsepower fatally injured a driver. That time—at a Cheyenne race meeting last year—a driver was spilled under an oncoming team. His rib cage was punctured in 18 places.
Sanford's team barreled down the straightaway at close to 40 miles an hour and crossed the finish line in 23.61, a good length ahead of Baker. That was to be the best time of the day but not the best race. In a neck-to-neck, whip-to-whip duel that ended just shy of a dead heat, Bub Mathisen gritted past Jim Toomer by a nose in 24.02. And Red Mathisen's blacks beat Joe France by another nose in 23.93.
The travel-brochure day and the good times put the racers in euphoria for the banquet and dance. The men changed into beaded Western jackets and slicked up their pompadours. The women wore brocade dresses. All hands headed for the Down the Hatch Room at Steamboat Springs' Harbor Hotel.
Gillis Mathisen was soon telling how Gene Fullmer, the former boxer, had a ranch in Utah and was a confirmed cutter racer, and about how his sister-in-law had won $200 in the Calcutta. "But money has little to do with it," he said. "The one place we get any money, at Cheyenne, I won $1,400. But we split the purse equally, and I wound up with $300. It's the people and the fun in cutter racing; we have something in common. People have to be able to think to train a horse, not just turn it on like a snowmobile."
Talk turned to Doc Utterback, a local veterinarian who has a zany idea that all "chariot" racers should wear togas and Roman helmets to promote the sport, an idea that he sometimes puts into practice. "His helmet is a bean pot with a scrub brush on top of it," said Ray Wardell, a banker from Big Piney. "He comes out of races with his cape covered with mud. I admit the crowd cheers for him twice as loud as anybody else, but cripes! People think you're two-thirds goofy for running for half a free drink, anyway."
After dinner and many affectionate introductions and acknowledgments, a country-Western band tuned up for a foot-stompin' dance. Sitting it out in a corner, Clarence Wheeler reminisced, "I remember when there were more dances out in the country schoolhouses than there were in town. It was nothing to go 10, 12 miles in a cutter every Saturday night. Folks would rent one similar to the kind doctors used on calls and come out from town. We had charcoal-burning foot warmers. My granddad ran one of Steamboat's three livery barns, Roper's Central, right where this hotel stands. He sold out in 1926, but I kept one team and drove them to school every day. No later than November you'd jack up your car on blocks and forget it until May. No way you could travel but horse and sleigh."