Competitors face decline in chariot racing

Lara Skelley of Gillette blazes down the quarter-mile racetrack in Glendo while competing in last weekend’s opening race at the Horseshoe Valley Chariot Races Sunday afternoon against Tom Nelson’s team, “T&M Jack Spratt.” This was one of Skelley’s final races after nine years of being heavily involved in the unique sport. (Photo by Mike Moore, Douglas Budget)

DOUGLAS — A flurry of commotion surrounds her at every angle. Stepping out of the door of her horse trailer, Lara Skelley is immediately met by her children with boundless energy giddily zig-zagging around the barren, sagebrush-filled landscape. In the distance, an auctioneer rambles as fast as his tongue will allow in an effort to garner the highest bids for the day’s races. 

She remains collected and calm as she slips on her KLIM bibs, already covered from the knee down in a hefty coat of mud from the previous day’s races. This is what she lives for. 

Breathing in a whiff of fresh air, she looks around at her supportive family milling about the immediate area, who are busy checking on her horses and readying her chariot for a pair of high-speed races. This is a way of life for the Skelley faithful, but after nine years of devotion to her love of the sport, this is essentially the end for her. 

Come March, when the Wyoming State Finals are come and gone, she confirms her days as a chariot racer will cease completely. She’s hardly past her prime at 36 years old, but that’s not the reason the Gillette thrill seeker is hanging up her reins. 

“Trying to keep up with the kids and the horses and keeping them in shape . . . I just can’t do it all anymore,” she said. 

The sport she loves most is plummeting in popularity and she doesn’t know exactly how to breathe new life into it when so much work and little payout come from it. 

“It’s on the downward slide,” she said of chariot racing. “It’s a lot of work to have four races.”

Four races. 

Last weekend’s Horseshoe Valley Chariot Races in Glendo featured four races on the Sunday finale. Of those four, only six drivers were in attendance to man their respective teams. 

It’s a sad state of the unique sport, which mainly holds events in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. 

Lara never misses a Wyoming chariot race. As the sport continues to decline, her final season this year, without missing a race, will feature a mere six total events. 

“We used to run in Saratoga, Riverton, Rock Springs and Gillette,” she said. “They’ve all just . . .” Her words trail off. 

“It’s really hard to get new people into it. It’s expensive to do and we don’t get anything. We might get a halter or a T-shirt for a prize. There’s no money in it. None. It’s what’s killing it.”

Elaine Daly has helped with Glendo’s chariot races for the past seven years. For last weekend’s event, she said they began around Christmas preparing for last weekend’s two-day event. It’s a big undertaking considering the number of races they hold these days. 

The fact of the matter is chariot racing events are not nearly what they were in the 1990s or 2000s, she said. Back then, Glendo’s events would feature 10-15 races with three chariots running side by side. Of Sunday’s event, only the final race had three teams running consecutively. The rest featured two. 

“It is a dying sport,” she said. “The kicker is, we don’t pay them anything. They get a buckle or a jacket. They might shell out for a weekend 1,000 or 1,500 bucks in travel expenses and general stuff.” 

Daly said they even offered each team money in the past to cover expenses, but drivers turned the offer down. 

“They said, ‘We don’t do it for the money,’” she said. “It’s all about the racing to them.” 

Despite the sport seeing hard times, Daly said Sunday brought in the neighborhood of 200 spectators. Considering Glendo has a population of 300, it is still a big draw for the rural community. 

“It all comes back to what you grew up around,” Daly said. “Horse racing is in the blood of many people in these communities that are still ranch and farm-based. It’s the old fashioned mode of ‘have a good afternoon.’ 

“I mean, what else are you going to do other than feed cattle in the morning?” 

For Roy Morgan Jr., chariot racing was a sport that began with his father, Roy Morgan Sr. more than 40 years ago. 

“It was an event in the winter to keep me occupied and kept me from raising hell as a teenager,” he said. 

Morgan Jr., now 58, can’t help but admit the sport is drastically different today than it was in his younger years. H e recalls three separate associations in Casper, along with additional ones in Glenrock, Guernsey, Sheridan, Rock Springs and Rawlins back then. They’re gone now. 

“You could run every weekend from Nov. 1 through the end of March somewhere in the state of Wyoming,” he said. “You’d go to a race and it’d be an all-day event. You’d start at noon and go till dark.” 

Races today usually wrap up in a couple of hours at most. He recalls a time when the state event brought in 80 teams, while this year they hope to get six to 10 teams. 

In the past, Morgan Jr. has played his part in putting together as many as four teams so other drivers could race and bolster the sport’s numbers. Not anymore. 

“I’m done doing it. One team is enough for me,” he said. “I’m not going to work my ass off for this sport anymore. Ya know, I’m done. Three, four teams is a lot of work. I don’t want to make a job out of it. I’ve done all kinds of stuff to keep this thing going and I’m done.” 

He wants to keep it as his hobby and family sport at this point and will continue racing, but with one team only. 

“One team isn’t work, it’s fun,” he said. “Somebody else can do that. It’s a hobby and you gotta treat it as a hobby. It’s a very enjoyable hobby and a very good family sport.” 

At certain times, he almost quit the sport entirely due to the amount of work involved with keeping a high number of teams ready to race. 

Although he is highly competitive with his team of horses, he says the sport itself was born out of amateur horse owners racing to have fun. He encourages people, regardless of the speed of their steeds, to give it a try. 

“You don’t have to have the fastest horses,” he said. “Anybody can run.” 

All is required, he said, is the horses be in shape so they don’t get hurt. He mirrors other drivers’ view of the current state, stating the sport is in dire times. 

“It’s almost gone now,” he said. “I wish we had more teams, and I don’t know how to do it. “I don’t know how to get more people interested.”