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The Great Horse Race of 1908

The year of 1908 went down in history as the year of the Great Horse Race in Colorado and Wyoming.  Sponsored by The Denver Post, the 500-mile race began in Evanston, Wyoming and finished in Colorado's capital city of Denver.  This race was the inspiration for the Oscar-nominated film "Bite the Bullet" directed by Richard Brooks and starring Gene Hackman, James Coburn and Candice Bergen.

Click on film poster to enlarge it.

Feeling ran pretty high in Colorado and Wyoming over this race back in 1908.  Although there were many entries in the 500-mile endurance race, in the public opinion the contest was between Dode Wykert on Sam, Colorado's favourite entrant;  and Charles Workman on Teddy, Wyoming's favourite son.  It is incidental that the original starting point was to have been Ogden, Utah, but Utah's governor would have no part of it, so the starting point was moved to Evanston, Wyoming.

Cody, Wyoming, the home place of the horse named Teddy, commissioned F. H. Barrow to go to Denver and spread around $3,000 at the best odds available.  Through newspaper interviews, Barrow expressed the confidence Wyoming folks had in Teddy's ability to walk away with the race, and pointed pridefully to Teddy's performance in daily 50-mile workouts.  As further assurance of condition, both of himself and the horse, Workman rode Teddy all the way from Cody to the starting point at Evanston, also about 500 miles.  Perhaps he would have done better to have rested the horse.

We know from past accounts that there were 25 official entrants at starting time . . . with horses weighing from under 900 pounds to almost 1100 pounds, riders that scaled from 160 pounds to one light-weight from Littleton that tipped the beam at 223, almost a third of what his horse weighed.  As the starting time approached, the fever mounted even higher.  Speeches and toasts were made wherever horsemen gathered . . . betting went hot and heavy . . . and it seemed that the competitive spirit of the old west was still alive.

A Denver Post specialist train carried contestants, horses, and spectators to the crowded little southwestern Wyoming city.  And the obliging Union Pacific Railroad established watering stations along the race route.  The toughest stretch was through the Red Desert between Rock Springs and Rawlins.  According to the contest rules, riders were to register, rest, and feed their horses every 50 miles.  For the record, Evanston treated all entries royally, in true western fashion.  The day dawned bright at Evanston on Saturday, May 30, 1908.  Wyoming governor Marshall Hadsell read aloud the rules of the event, and riders departed on the epic race with shouts and shots ringing in their ears.

Sam, Teddy, Rose, and Sultan of Sulu were pretty familiar names around the Rocky Mountain region the day of the Great Horse Race.  Those four horses, along with 21 others, took off in a cloud of dust for the 500-mile endurance race to Denver.  Thirteen of the entries were either full or part Thoroughbred;  the other 12 were so-called western broncs.  It looked like Teddy would pitch his rider since he went on several wild bucking sprees the first few miles out.

Colorado's hopeful, Dode Wykert, was content to lay back in the pack, since he constantly gained confidence in the way his mount, Sam, obviously surpassed the competition.  Workman, known to ride a heavy hand, pushed the gallant Teddy over 100 miles the first day.  True, he left the closest competition many miles behind, but Teddy was unquestionably weakened by the terrific pace.

After the first hundred miles many riders were in trouble and began dropping out;  two at Rawlins, one at Wamsutter, one at Granter, etc.  For some odd reason, Workman and Teddy went more than 20 miles out of their way near Medicine Bow, somehow wandering off the well-traveled road.  Still the majestic Teddy led the race into Laramie.

When Dode Wykert rode into Laramie, the leaders were at the Tie Siding vicinity.  It was here, rather than at Ault, where a Colorado representative was supposed to have failed in an attempt to load and ship one of the contesting horses by rail to Cheyenne.  It was between Laramie and Cheyenne that the Colorado horse, Sam, displayed his real power and Dode Wykert rode him hard, knowing full well the psychological advantage of beating Workman and Teddy into the big town.  (There was a purse offered to Teddy if he were the first horse into Cheyenne.) 

Over a hundred riders, including Governor Hadsell, met Dode at the city limits and escorted him in.  The streets of Cheyenne were lined for the event, but not all the sentiments were with the tough rider and the well-conditioned Sam.  Dode picked up $125 from a supporter for leading the race at that point.  The Wyoming Tribune on June 4, 1908, headlined:  'Sam leads into Cheyenne' . . . and added 'the sensation of the day was the wonderful ride by Wykert on Sam, a Colorado bronc that, at last report, was 15 or 20 miles behind the leader when they arrived in Laramie last evening'.  So it is evident that Dode Wykert was riding a pretty smart race!

When the remaining contestants reached Cheyenne, all horses were given a thorough check-up.  It is interesting to note that of the starting field of 25, it had narrowed down to 5 by the time Cheyenne was reached and 4 of those were broncs.  Since the object of the race was supposedly to determine the horse that had the greatest endurance, the bronc or the Thoroughbred, it looked as if a precedent had already been established.

Both Dode Wykert and Charles Workman were still in the race and nobody doubted the big battle was between these two.  However, all agreed that Workman was in trouble.  Teddy was weakening visibly.  Four riders, including Wykert, bedded down for the night at the well-known Cheyenne livery barn.  Workman was permitted to take Teddy to the stable of a backer for the night.  Apparently Workman decided to violate his verbal agreement and slipped out of Cheyenne shortly after midnight.  Flour had been sprinkled along the route to guide the wily rider in the dark.  However, somebody aroused the sleeping Dode, told him what was taking place, and in minutes Wykert and Sam were tearing out of Cheyenne in hot pursuit.

In two hours, four riders were at Carr Station, and Workman realized that his plot had failed, so he rested.  It was here that the Colorado supporters pulled their trick.  Knowing how Workman feared Dode's taking the lead, they moved Sam out of sight and set a Wykert-sized rider racing out of town.  At the same time somebody obligingly tipped off Workman, who in post-haste saddled up and weary Teddy and streaked after the substitute Wykert.

Workman finally caught up with the trickster and only then did he realize he had been properly duped.  The real Wykert then followed later at a leisurely pace, still saving Sam for a driving finish.  The town of Ault, Colorado, was expecting the riders some time Saturday morning and many had stayed up all night in anticipation.  When Workman rode in at 3:45 a.m. he was greeted by much of the potato town's population.

A bronc named Jaybird was close behind, and Wykert and Sam jogged in about 4 o'clock.  By the time they reached Eaton, Wykert was riding easily along with the leaders.  Between Eaton and Greeley, Teddy supporters in an automobile took the dusty road in front of Wykert and Sam, and refused to give them clear way, apparently with the idea of choking them out of the race.  After a while of this, Wykert removed the obstacle by riding up close and carefully aiming a monstrous six gun.  The autoists suddenly recalled a pressing engagement elsewhere.

Friday found the rapidly-diminishing field approaching Greeley with the favorites, Wykert and Workman, still in the running.  The remaining horses were thoroughly examined and Jaybird was ordered out of the race by the attending vets.  Thus, only Sam, Teddy, and three other broncs were left, with Teddy so weak he could barely stand.  On the leg between Greeley and Fort Lupton, Teddy was given a pep-up shot every few miles.  The tired Wykert and Sam knew well that victory was now just a matter of time and a little more endurance.

At Fort Lupton, Teddy was given a ration of whisky and quinine, under the auspices of the humane officers, before a crowd of 500.  Wykert backers protested, but still felt confident since the little blue roan bronc, Sam, had received no stimulant of any sort and was still in amazingly good condition.

It was in the Brighton-Henderson area that the big blow-off came.  The race officials, whoever they were, suddenly declared the race a draw and all bets off!  Wykert and Workman were ordered to walk their horses, now declared unfit for further competition, the rest of the way into Denver and cross the finish line together.

The entire region was in an uproar . . . oaths filled the air and accusations of saying the bets of the big money boys were slanted at the officials, who turned deaf ears to the protests and had the ruling enforced.  The pair walked their horses into Denver, led by a 1908 automobile.  Thousands lined the roadside to get a look at the men and their amazing horses.  As the procession turned on Champa and moved down the street to the finish line in front of the Denver Post, Wykert and Sam tried to pass the car.  The driver prevented their first effort, but as they neared the finish, 25,000 spectators got a thrill when Wykert neatly out-maneuvered the leading automobile and Sam scooted across the line first!  Some 523 miles in less than 7 days!  Sam and Teddy were declared tied for first;  Clipper, Dek and Bluebell, all broncs, were judged second, third and fourth.

The reception was tremendous.  Dode Wykert was officially declared Colorado's greatest horseman.  The bronc, Sam, was easily in best condition, so the Wykert brothers picked up the $300 'best condition' award.  Dode also received a silver-trimmed saddle, two pairs of boots, and many other gifts.  Sam's own personal reward was the rare privilege of grazing on the state capitol lawn the following day.

Extracted from "Into the Sunset" by George S. Ball, published in 1966.

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