Jana Meisenholder| The Atavist Magazine | August 2022 | 7 minutes (2,197 words)
This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 129, “King of the Hill.”
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Before the arrival of European colonizers, the Columbia Plateau, which forms swaths of present-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, was home to several Native tribes, including the Nez Perce, Wenatchi, Palus, and Colville. Foreigners brought with them disease and destruction. They also brought horses. “It was probably the best gift the white man ever gave us,” the late Stampede organizer and horse trainer Eddie Timentwa told author Carol Austin, who wrote a book about the Suicide Race in 1993,
By the 1700s, horsemanship had become an integral part of Native culture. The animals assisted in transportation and territorial expansion. “Mounted war parties could strike enemies at greater distances and with greater force than ever before,” writes anthropologist Deward Walker. Horses also led to larger traditional gatherings, allowing more people from a wider geographical range to come together. During salmon-spawning season, plateau tribes would meet at the confluence of the Sanpoil and Columbia Rivers to harvest and dry the coming winter’s supply of fish. Horses served as entertainment and objects of sporting competition. Riders paraded horses adorned with tribal regalia and beaded stirrups and bridles before running perilous mountain races.
After the plateau tribes were forced onto the Colville Reservation, the tradition of horse racing continued, and people wagered on riders. Stories of these events were most often passed down through oral tradition, but in 1879, Erskine Wood, a U.S. military officer, wrote of one horse race, “It did not take long for the excitement to grow and soon the bets were showering down and the pile swelling visibly with such great rapidity that it was marvelous how account could be kept. Blankets, furs, saddles, knives, traps, tobacco, beads, whips, and a hundred other things were staked.” (Wood wrote positively of many of his encounters with Native tribes, but also participated in the violent removal of the Nez Perce from their ancestral land.)
In the 1920s, Hugh McShane, a white man married to a Colville woman, introduced a mountain race at the rodeo in Keller, Washington. The race, described by Austin as “a half mile, pell-mell down a nearly vertical, boulder-strewn chasm in the face of a mountain,” quickly became a crowd favorite. But it wouldn’t last: The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s flooded Keller, forcing residents to relocate. In Omak, about 60 miles northwest, Claire Pentz, a furniture salesman in charge of publicity for the town’s rodeo, heard about McShane’s event and decided to stage one of his own. Locals brainstormed what to call the starting location, a precipitous incline on the Okanogan’s southern bank. Murder Hill was floated, but organizers settled on Suicide Hill. “The suicide race draws only the most nervy riders,” The Omak Chronicle declared.
In 1942, a jockey named Bev Conners drowned in the river during the race. Since then, according to various sources, no other jockeys have died. But injuries are common, including grievous ones. Larry Peasley, who taught Andres how to ride a mechanical bull, has two adult children who were nearly killed in the race. In 2002, his daughter Naomie—one of only a few women to ever run the race—suffered a skull fracture and flatlined on the way to the hospital. Doctors were able to revive her. A few years later, Peasley’s son Tyler went somersaulting off his horse and was trampled by oncoming riders. He fractured his ribs and suffered a broken pelvis and hip.
It’s not hard to see what makes the race so dangerous. There’s the hill itself, more than 200 feet of earth pitched at a harrowing angle—according to one race organizer’s measurement, it’s steeper than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Riders charge down the slope at full gallop, reaching speeds up to 30 miles per hour by the time they hit the river. Then there’s the lack of any hard-and-fast rules about how the race should be run. Horses aren’t lined up in an orderly fashion at the starting line. What happens on Suicide Hill is a free-for-all, with mounted jockeys jostling each other, fighting for a competitive spot. The aggression only escalates during the race. Riders violently whipping other jockeys in the face with their crops, attempting to throw them off balance or slow them down, is a common tactic, and often a successful one.
The best Suicide Race jockeys are adrenaline junkies, as athletic as they are knowledgeable of the event’s 1,260-foot-long course. They’ve meticulously mapped out the quarter-mile and know what to do when: Lean back before this point, lock your knees here, sit forward just after that section, pull back the reins there. Riders have incredible core and leg strength to help them stay in the saddle, and they know how far their bodies can tilt sideways if need be, to avoid injury or inflict it on a competitor.
In 2002, the race’s all-time reigning champ, Alex Dick, passed away at the age of 83. He had 16 King of the Hill titles to his name; his obituary in a local newspaper noted that Dick, who was Native, “set a record that will probably never be broken.” So far it hasn’t been. Yet if there’s a first family of the Suicide Race today, it’s the Marchands. Three brothers—Loren, Francis, and Edward—have followed in the footsteps of their grandfather, Jim, an endurance racer who died after a horse fell on him in 1990, and an uncle, George, who holds three Suicide Race titles. Loren, now 34, has been crowned King of the Hill seven times, most recently in 2015. Francis and Edward have never won the overall title, but they’ve come close.
As the dominant force in the Suicide Race, the Marchand brothers have a wealth of tips and tricks, and they know all the best places around Omak to practice. But the race is a tradition most often shared among kin, and the Marchands are notoriously wary of letting people who aren’t blood, or at least Native, into their inner circle. They also reject weekend warriors and wannabe jockeys who are in it purely for the exhilaration. “The Marchands don’t fuck with anybody,” said Conner Picking, a Suicide Race jockey and a great-grandson of one of the founders of the Omak Stampede.
That didn’t stop Andres from trying to get their attention.
By the summer of 2018, Andres, now 26, had cleaned up his life and was working construction and picking up jobs as a handyman. He was also holding fast to his desire to learn from Suicide Race royalty, looking for a way in to their good graces. One day he accompanied a welder to a small ranch in Eastside owned by Preston Boyd, a Colville elder renowned for breeding and training thoroughbreds for flat-track racing. Boyd needed the men to fix his broken horse walker, a motorized machine that leads horses in a circle. While Andres worked, Boyd took a good look at him. He noticed Andres’s height—just five feet six inches. He probed the young man about his weight.
Boyd was searching for a new rider to exercise his racehorses, because his usual guys were getting too busy. Among them was his great-nephew, Francis Marchand. Francis was helping Boyd break some new horses that summer, but his schedule was increasingly packed with rodeos—a formidable horseman, Francis regularly competed in saddle bronc and bareback riding. Andres’s specs were promising for the kind of rider Boyd needed. Sure, he couldn’t gallop a horse yet, but he could learn. Boyd told Andres he might fit the bill.
Andres knew he was being given a rare opportunity—a chance to get to know Boyd and one of the Marchands, and to show that he had what it took to run the Suicide Race. But months went by and nothing happened. Boyd never followed up with Andres about exercising his horses.
Omak is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody, and sometimes Andres bumped into Francis at social gatherings. He would bring up Boyd’s suggestion that he was rider material as casually as he could, to see if Francis knew anything about his great-uncle’s plans. Andres also asked about going off the hill—what it felt like, what it took to win. Francis recognized Andres’s ambition, and in early 2019 he told him to stop dithering and get to the point: If he wanted to become a rider, he should go to Boyd and say so. “You want to do this? Look him in the eyes,” Francis said. “In any culture, you grab a guy, shake his hand, and tell him you want this.”
Andres took the advice to heart, but he didn’t want to seem desperate. He waited until he ran into Boyd at a gas station one day, then asked if he could help exercise his horses. Boyd said sure, and Andres showed up at 7:30 the next morning to start learning.
Unlike bull riding, which Andres took to easily as a boy, riding racehorses was challenging. Though short, he was stocky and muscular; working construction had made him strong, but he wasn’t nimble or quick to respond to a horse’s stride. Montana Pakootas, a seasoned jockey who helped out on the ranch, had to constantly remind Andres not to yank the reins, but to pull them gently, if he wanted to slow a horse down. “Use your wrist, not your whole arm,” Pakootas said. Otherwise, when a horse was going full speed, Andres risked throwing it off balance.
Andres’s riding improved, and by the summer of 2019 he was exercising Boyd’s newest racehorses for several hours most days of the week. Boyd expected his riders to stick to a routine, for the horses’ sake. “I take Wednesdays and Sundays off to let their muscles, if they get sore, to give them a little rest,” he said. On training days, it was Andres’s job to guide horses to a trot around a local track for a quarter of a mile, getting their blood pumping and helping them build stamina. Eventually he would get them up to a gallop. As a horse became more aerobic, Andres learned to increase its speed against its pulse, maintaining a low heart rate even while the horse worked hard over varying distances. After weeks or months of training, when a horse was comfortable running at top speed around the track in Omak, Andres took the horse to Emerald Downs, a race facility in Seattle, not to compete but to get acquainted with crowds and the whirring sound the starting gates make when they open.
Andres exercised Boyd’s horses for free, and he and Renteria, who was selling Amway products at the time, sometimes struggled to cover the bills. Andres picked up odd jobs where he could, but not anything that took away from his time with Boyd’s horses. The Suicide Race was never far from his mind. He watched videos of past races over and over, studying them. “He’d always say, ‘I hope I go down the hill one day,’ but I never thought he would actually be in it,” Renteria said. Sometimes Andres was surprised he still had a girlfriend at all. “He told me that he thought I’d break up with him since all he did was ride,” Renteria said, smiling.
One day, when Andres had been working with Montana Pakootas for a while, he decided to tell him about his ultimate goal. Pakootas, who had run many Suicide Races and was crowned King of the Hill in 2004, was hosing down a horse at the time. In response to what Andres said, he turned and sprayed him in the face. That’s how the hazing began. Another time Pakootas dumped a boot full of water on Andres’s head. “You scared of getting wet? Because that water fucking feels like it just whips you in the face,” he said, referring to the dive into the Okanogan River. Andres was humiliated, but he kept showing up, kept taking shit.
When Boyd asked him to come along to Emerald Downs for an official racing event, Andres jumped at the chance. At the Downs, Andres awoke every morning at 4:45 to feed the racehorses, then got them ready for the day’s competitions. Francis Marchand and his brother Edward were there, helping care for Boyd’s horses, and they picked up Andres’s hazing where Pakootas had left off. “Edward wasn’t easy on me, that’s for sure,” Andres said. The eldest Marchand brother, known for his success in the extreme sport of Indian relay racing, in which a rider changes his mount mid-competition, seemed to notice every mistake Andres made while warming up the horses. “It’s almost like he waited for me to fuck up,” Andres said, “just so he could go off on me and drive me away.”
Andres persevered, and over margaritas at an Applebee’s one day, he felt bold enough to say it to Edward straight—what he wanted, what he was sure he was capable of. What did he need to do to go off the hill? Edward, who had placed second overall in the 2018 Suicide Race, shook his head in response.
“You don’t have what it takes,” he said.
“What’s it take?” Andres asked.
“It doesn’t matter. You don’t got it.”