Indian Relay Race
Courtesy photo
Indian Relays – Behind the Scenes
Tuesday, July 13, 2021

CROW AGENCY, Montana — June 25th, 2021, marked the annual Crow Native Days, replete with many activities, the highlight perhaps the Indian relay races, a sport gaining immense popularity thrilling audiences across the nation.

Exceptionally talented and popular announcer, Kennard Realbird, Crow, explained that Indian Relay ticket sales have overtaken many western events at the huge Billings Metra Complex, generating more revenue than most events. In 2000, for example Indian Relay gate sales brought in more than the PBR and other rodeos, concerts, and other events, coming in second only to Charlie Pride, a Montana grown country music star.

“Horse racing and gambling on that has been in our blood ever since the first two Indians got horses,” Kennard Realbird remarked. “It’s nothing new, just more organized now.”

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The prospect of “added money” for the purse and prestige draws an average of 20 teams from all corners of Indian country to each event, often capped at that number for manageability. Though most teams have been in the sport for years, new teams are popping up left and right. The sport is expanding to include the Shetland Relay Races, grooming and encouraging the next generation and Women’s Indian Relay.

What does it take to field a competitive Indian Relay Team? Two Veteran teams from the Crow Reservation recently shared their insights about that: River Road Indian Relay owned by Cody Brown and Velma Pickett and Old Elk Indian Relay, the driving force veteran jockey Ashton Old Elk, age 28 who has been a winning rider since he was 15. His wife, Charine is equally involved, especially on the financial end.

“It’s like rodeo, an adrenaline rush that gets you hooked,” Ashton said. “It takes a lot and at the end, even when we win, it’s not about the money, but the satisfaction.”

Horses, of course, are the key to a successful team both Brown and Old Elk noted. The days of grabbing a pony from a reservation pasture for Indian Relay are over, as teams increasingly go for thoroughbreds bought off the racetrack. These are very tall horses, averaging 6-17 hands tall and prone to nervous energy, making it even more miraculous that the agile jockeys can easily leap onto them, particularly during the action-packed exchanges, that is jumping from one extremely excited and athletic Powerball onto another during the race, hopefully without mishap.

Though three horses are entered into each race, it is common for teams to have many more in training, prepared for injury and as they know the unique ability of each horse, carefully selecting which runners might do best on a particular track or competition, none being exactly the same.

River Road, for example has anywhere from 7-10 horses in training at any given time, as does Old Elk. They are intimately familiar with the unique personality and ability of each of their horses, speaking of them like family.

NATIVE SUN NEWS TODAY

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Clara Caufield can be reached at acheyennevoice@gmail.com

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