BY JIM WELLS
Indian relay racing returned to Canterbury Park Thursday night and that can only mean one thing: The Mystic Lake Derby is upon us.
They are inseparable. Two nights of relay heats and then the championship on Saturday as an accompaniment to the $200,000 Derby, the richest race of the summer.
Who knows, there might come a day when these two races will be regarded much as other associations are in sports. Minnesota Vikings training camp, for instance, is always accompanied by humidity and the end of summer. That has been a given for it seems like time immemorial.
Talk to diehard supporters of the Chicago Cubs. Is there any chance of associating the Cubs with something such as, say, disappointment.
Okay, poor comparisons but the point is still sound. There are certain pairings in sport that don’t seem capable of separating and Indian relay racing has become a welcome and inseparable partner to the Mystic Lake Derby.
The relays got under way Thursday night to the same kind of enthusiasm they’ve experienced in the past, with riders from various tribal nations matching up against one another for the right to ride for the title and part of $50,000 in prize money .
First time viewers are generally taken with the pageantry of paints, colors and tribal regalia used on riders and their mounts, but are even more impressed with the daring do of races conducted bareback over three miles on three different horses, a process that includes rapid dismounts and remounts in front of the grandstand.
The riders were sent off with a traditional warrior song before each of two heats on Thursday’s card, with two more scheduled as part of tonight’s card.
Canterbury Park rider Orlando Mojica, watching the event for the first time, talked members of the relay crew into taking his photo while he wore a tribal headdress. His response to the racing itself: “That was really cool.”
Chris Rosier also saw the races for the first time. “Great, really great,” he exclaimed.
The relay races are accompanied this week by an Indian Fair offering numerous hand-made items from various tribal nations across the United States. In addition, a number of women from Red Lake, Leech Lake and other tribal locations demonstrated traditional dances, in full regalia.
The winner of the first heat on Thursday was Brian Beetum,23, of Pine Ridge in South Dakota. He got his start in the sport right here at Canterbury last year, winning two heats and finishing second overall.
He got his start on a horse breaking cattle ponies as a youngster and was talked into riding relays last year and again this year by his uncle, Soup Ducheneaux. “I wasn’t prepared to ride this time either,” Beetum said, “but Soup called me and here I am.”
His uncle owns the horses Beetum rode with another partner. Beetum was able to outduel the second place finisher, the team of Holds the Enemy. Eugene Spotted Horse, a member of the Montana Crow tribe was the rider.
Beetum, naturally, was dropped plenty of times as a youngster while breaking cattle horses. “When I saw a chiropractor he asked me how many times I’d been dropped on my head,” said Beetum. “When I asked him how he knew that, he said that my spine was crooked. No way I could lie to him.”
Beetum’s background includes racing on several bush tracks in the Dakotas, Montana and other Western sites. “I’ve done gate racing in Miles City, Montana. I’ve been on horses since I was seven years old.”
The winner of Thursday’s second relay has a varied history with horses as well. Wes Edwards, of the Montana Blackfeet tribe, rode the winning horses for the Lil Badger team.
Edwards, 30, has been riding relays for 13 years and before that rode on the rodeo circuit. “Saddle broncs,” he said. He has expanded that experience into another sideline, stunt riding, and has his first film job in just a few weeks. He has signed as a stunt rider for a movie being filmed in Austin, Texas, called the Son of Texas. He has some other goals he wants to achieve first, however.
“I hope to be back here (in the winner’s circle) Saturday night,” he said.