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Indian relay races begin at Fort Washakie.

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By Jack McNeel -- Today correspondent

FORT WASHAKIE, Wyo. - Seven teams of racers from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming gathered at Fort Washakie on the Wind River Reservation in early July for what was billed as the ''First Annual Indian Relay'' horse race. While Indian relay races have been around for generations and aren't new to Fort Washakie, the plan is to build a new track by next summer and make these races an annual event.

Each team is composed of three horses and four people: a catcher, two holders and the rider. That adds up to 21 horses and 28 people on the track at the same time and the basis for lots of action and excitement. That excitement shows on the faces of many watching from the bleachers, particularly when the riders are changing horses and the action really heats up.

Relay racing is well-known throughout Indian country; but for those unfamiliar, here's a brief description of the race:

Teams line up together with all the horses being held by team members. When the start is signaled, each rider leaps aboard his first horse and races down the track, riding bareback and often wearing Indian regalia. At the end of the lap around the track, the rider jumps from his horse as the catcher grabs that horse and the rider attempts to make a quick leap to the back of his second horse. He then races around the track on the second horse and makes the exchange to the third horse for the final lap. First rider to complete the three laps wins.

It's during the exchange of horses that accidents are most likely to happen. The horses waiting to run are often excited and not standing quietly, thus making it difficult for the rider to leap aboard. Riders are also crossing the track to their team holding the next horse, and this can cause collisions as well. Even in major rodeos where Indian relay races are run, this event generally causes more excitement than any other.

Four teams from the Fort Washakie area were entered: Boulder Flats, with Verlon Timbana the owner and his son, Ian, the rider; Tillmans, with Lee Tillman the owner and Jerome Cerino the jockey; Bells, with Zane Bell the owner and Rod Kennedy riding; and Starr Weed, with Starr Weed the owner and Brandon Weed riding. Other teams included Livermore from Browning, Mont., owned by John Dean Deroche and Terrance Bird Rattler riding; Mountain Timber, from the Sho-Ban Reservation, with owner James Tone and his son, John Mark Skunkcap, riding; and Blackfeet Boys, with Caleb Murray riding.

Overall winner after three days of riding was Mountain Timber.

Other types of races were included during the three days. A ladies' race was won by Renae Smith from Mountain Timber. A race for riders age 50 and older was won by Verlon Timbana, and a ''Chief's Race,'' in which all contestants had to wear headdresses, was won by Tom Tillman. These races consisted of just one lap around the track, something less than half a mile.

The current track at Fort Washakie will likely be turned over to rodeo events in the future as a new horse racing venue is in the planning stages and hopefully will be functional by next summer. Ren Freeman, director of the Eastern Shoshone Museum and Heritage Center, is one of the planners and she described upcoming plans.

''It's been a 30-year vision of our tribe to create the museum and heritage center. We needed a program that reflected our culture, so we decided on a horse cultural program. We have 135 acres set aside for building the museum and heritage center, and we decided to put pastures and corrals in and to bring a youth program and have adoption and equestrian programs. In the course of that I met with the Indian relay group and asked if they'd help create the horse cultural program. They said they wanted to build a new track so they could be part of the north-south circuit of Indian relay racing in this area of the Rocky Mountain region.

''We put our heads together and started looking at different designs, including the tracks at Browning and Fort Hall. This is part of our cultural preservation goal. It's very much a part of who we are, so it's a natural thing we should be doing. The main purpose for building a race track is to serve our people and bring the young and elders and families who race together in this place.

''We'll be breaking ground in August. The track and horse program will be one of the first pieces we'll build, along with a larger facility which is a 40,000-square-foot museum with conference space, gift shop, cafe, etc.''