Chariot Races, long a favorite winter event in the Valley for over 30 years, will not be held this year. But a new event called skijoring is coming into the Valley with the hopes of combining equestrian riding and skiing while drawing visitors to Saratoga.
Organizers of the chariot races said there were not enough competitors for chariot racing to make the event feasible. Will Faust, a member of the Saratoga Lion's Club, sponsor of the chariot races, said, in his opinion, shifts in tastes have reduced the numbers of competitors and made it more difficult to host the event. Skijoring, however, is a growing sport that blends horsemanship with skiing, and it is hoped it will bring a new generation of participant and spectator together in the Valley.
The event will be cosponsored by the Lion's Club, previous sponsor of chariot races, and the Platte Valley Jaycees.
Rob Streeter, of the Jaycees, said the group heard that there might not be chariot races this year in Saratoga, and began searching for other ideas.
"We thought, 'Chariot races are a huge draw for Saratoga, the restaurants and the hotels,' so how could we fill that gap?" Streeter said. That's when someone had the idea for skijoring, a sport enjoyed by a youthful crowd that also involves horses, which are a big hobby in the Valley.
Originally, Streeter thought with the help of the Lions, skijoring would make its debut in the Valley in 2018, after a year hiatus of the Chariot races. But the Lions, he said, were ready to try something new and were eager to get started putting together the event right away so there would be no lull in Saratoga's winter tourism season.
"We approached the Lion's Club about it, and they really hit the ground running," Streeter said.
Not a new sport, but a younger crowd
Skijoring is a competitive sport that combines cross-country skiing with horsepower. In many cases, the horsepower comes from horses, though the sport also is known to use dogs and even motor vehicles as the source of power. In the sport, skiers are towed through an obstacle course by horses, dogs or vehicles. The obstacles are comprised of jumps, slaloms, moguls and others.
Equestrian skijoring, then popular in France, was demonstrated at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Since then, the sport has become popular in North America, with the largest skijoring race in the world held in Minnesota in 2011.
In Saratoga, skijoring will be done with horses and the event will be held at Buck Springs, a place familiar to fans of the chariot races.
The chariot races, though beloved by many, were getting harder to organize due to a lack of competitors. The chariot races in Saratoga, Faust said, really needed about 20-24 competitors in order to make the purse attractive to racers, but there have been steady declines in the number of chariot racers over the past several years. Event organizers, Faust said, over the past several years. Event organizers, Faust said, had only been able to find a fraction of the 20 or more racers they would like to have had.
Faust said, in his opinion, that is because even though there are plenty of people with money to spend on hobbies, many younger people are spending their disposable income on pastimes other than equestrian events.
Skijoring, he said, might be the key in bringing together Valley equestrians and younger generations who prefer other sports.
Other than the sport being different from before, Faust said the organizers hope to have an event that is organized very similarly to the old chariot races. "The formats are exactly the same, typically for these events," Faust said.
"You have registrations, a Calcutta typically at a local establishment bar on Friday night, races on Saturday and a big party and Calcutta event on Saturday night and races on Sunday," Faust said.
Streeter said that the Saturday night banquet and Calcutta familiar to attendees of the chariot races will now be called a party and Calcutta. Rather than being served dinner, attendees will enjoy a more casual, buffet-style meal. Minor changes like those reflect the fact that the town is now seeking to attract a new age group, and such changes are intended to be more relevant to that demographic, Streeter said.
Besides racing and a few terminology changes, essentially, the only thing that is changing is the type of racing, Faust said. And one thing will always remain the same, Faust said: The primary goal of the organizers is to fill hotel rooms and boost visits to local restaurants, bars and retailers.
"It saddens the Lions Club that the chariot race is gone, that it's no longer going to be an event because it had such a great history and was so well done for so many years," Faust said. "But I think what we're trying to do is look for those next 35 years."
Skijoring into the future?
"The chariot races have been a flagship event for Saratoga for a long time," Streeter said. "It has been a long-running, stable event the community can count on, but the popularity of the sport is declining; The popularity of skijoring is increasing." Streeter said.
"We think we can get a good 30 years out of this."
For his part, Faust pointed out that the town of Whitefish, Montana, started a skijoring event 14 years ago, and since then, the event has grown to attract 10,000 attendees per year.
Whitefish, Faust says, is to the point where there are not enough hotel rooms for all attendees, so the town began allowing visitors to bring in campers and RVs to make up for the shortfall.
"That's the kind of problem we'd love to have someday," Faust said. "One of those problems you just dream for."
Even though Saratoga may be too small to host an event that draws 10,000 or more visitors, Faust is hopeful that the new, youthful event will be a hit and will introduce a whole new generation to Saratoga and the Valley, and that the event's impact will carry on for years.
"I do see this as an event that will grow and eventually replace what chariot races was," Faust said. "A friend of mine, he shot a text (about Saratoga's skijoring event) out to 10 of his friends and they all live down in Denver.
"Every single one of them texted him back within 15 minutes saying, 'I'm in, just tell me where to send a check and I'm signing up,' and these are all good skiers," Faust said.
Faust said he is very hopeful the sport of skijoring will act as a bridge between cultures, the youthful "ski bums" as Streeter called them, and the agricultural, horse lovers here in the Valley.
Faust is hopeful that the new event will carry on for years to come, and perhaps someday open another door for future winter activities in the Valley. "They (the Lions Club) saw a need to put on an event during the winter to help them get through the slower winter time," Faust said. "It fills up town for the weekend and if we can always have something filling up town for the weekend it grows our local economy."
Streeter agrees, saying that the Jaycees hope to keep visitors streaming into Saratoga year-round, years into the future. And, Streeter said, the club has been fortunate to have the opportunity to work alongside the Lions Club, who have been receptive to the new idea and eager to use their expertise and organizational skills to bring the event to town.
"I know it's tough, after a fashion, to pass on the torch to the next generation of people," Streeter said. "Personally-and I think I can speak for the Jaycees-I just want to thank them (the Lions) for their willingness to work together on this and hammer out a good event."
Even though the Lions may be sad to see the demise of the chariot races, Faust said he is excited for the future. "We've got to find something for the next 30 years so that when my kids get to take over, then we can let them have at it."