How could even an impatient, short-memoried country like the United States forget about cutters so quickly? Immobilized in cities by a few inches of snow, marooned in once self-reliant farmsteads by ice on rural roads, Americans now wait helplessly, fretfully, for the plows to come after a winter storm. Yet it was only a generation or so ago that winter was welcomed for travel—and racing.
In the same way that the first good snowfall was intently anticipated, the first serious thaw was nearly regretted. It was more than the agrarian certainty that the dawn-to-dusk labor of plowing, seeding, harrowing, picking, mowing, threshing, storing and preserving would begin again and continue until after harvest time, replacing the parties, dances and leisurely neighbor visiting of winter. It was the sure knowledge that the sucking mud of spring and gritty dust of summer made highroad and country lane alike less passable, less pleasant.
But when the snows arrived, from the cupola-topped carriage barns came the cheerful sleigh bells and the fast, graceful cutters, the racing sleighs. Shiny lacquer and ornate painted decoration were polished and steel runners carefully waxed. Ponderous horse-drawn rollers went out to pack down snow on the main roads, and where snow was wanting on bridges and in windblown places, it was supplied. The scene was set for cutter racing, for what man could resist matching his horse or team against a neighbor's in chance meetings on a country road?
It is not such spontaneous sport these days, but cutter racing has returned. There are now 25 associations in five states—Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Montana—that hold a full schedule of meetings all winter long. Horses are being specially raised and bred for the purpose, the most successful seeming to be quarter horses that are seven-eighths thoroughbred. The very best of them sell for up to $40,000. Phototimers, photo-camera finishes and starting gates have supplanted lap-and-tap jockeying starts and cold thumbs on stopwatches. And some bigger meets have even been televised.
Purists may be offended. Today's cutters tend to be made of aluminum, fiber glass or elaborately transmogrified oil drums. Worse, many places where the sport is now popular have had little snow in recent years, and drivers have resorted to putting their cutters on wheels. Some younger participants in the more snow-barren associations refer to the sport as "chariot" racing, the connection with Currier & Ives cutters being totally lost. They assume either that the idea recently sprang full-grown from some fertile young brain or conversely that it must have been exhumed from unimaginable antiquity. "It goes back to the Romans, I think," said one innocent. "You've seen the movie Ben Hur, haven't you?"
But for an association located deep in the snowbound Rockies, there is no mistake about the continuity with sleighing. Steamboat Springs, Colo., home of the Yampa Valley cutter racing association, is such a place. In that part of the state the roads were not plowed in wintertime until 1932, and the mail and everything else traveled by sleighs. In fact, as late as 1961 some people used cutters on their trips to town.
Snow in quantity—it falls eight, and sometimes nine, months of the year—makes the area a fine place for cutter racing, and last February it was the site of the annual Wyoming-Colorado interstate championships. Eleven feet of dry, flaky stuff that the Chamber of Commerce calls "champagne powder" had dropped on the town by the week of the big meet. Wayne Light, weather watcher for the local Steamboat Pilot, reported that only a little over two feet remained. But it was obvious a good deal more was on the way.
The fairgrounds where the cutter meets are held is close by Steamboat's lighted slalom ski course and one of the U.S.'s best ski jumps. Up the mountains march miles of massive black-green spruce in military formation. In the blinding white snow banked high along the quarter-mile track that brilliant Saturday, crystalline sparkles flashed reflections from the sun. Through their holiday glitter ran an exciting, familiar-unfamiliar pattern of hoofprints and interswitching runner tracks, a white-on-white carving.
Teams of horses in full harness, dozens of them, hitched to an eclectic lot of cutters, furthered a sense of the simple horse-drawn past. Ben Clinton's glossy black team—colt and dam—particularly disjointed time. The horses wore a white harness decorated with royal blue tassels and pompons, handmade by a wooden-legged driver known locally as Old Cedarfoot. Esthetically, the best of the cutters was a red sleigh on tubular aluminum runners that belonged to Fear Ranches of Big Piney, Wyo. Now-arcane talk of singletrees and doubletrees and neck yokes pleasantly punctuated conversations as leathery hands deftly knit characterless straps into complicated harnessing.
A season-long series of races and a qualifying meet at Casper had winnowed the Wyoming contestants to the best of some 200 teams; and the redundant little blizzard of the previous two days had kept many of the drivers who enter mostly for fun off the long, lonely highways. Sandy-haired Jim Toomer from Wyoming's Bridger Valley was the probable favorite. He was driving a pair of red-blinkered bays named Spick and Spook that had been salvaged out of a bucking string. The team had been winning all over Wyoming and at Casper had averaged 23 seconds flat for a quarter of a mile. The recognized world record in cutter racing is 21.58.