“Tension fills the air. The stands are packed with people who have come to see riders wearing full feather headdresses and fringed chaps, riding horses with rumps that have been painted with pink and yellow handprints and various other esoteric or sacred insignia. The Native athletes ride bareback for one lap around before jumping off one horse and onto the next to ride another lap… It’s an insane spectator sport; riders and handlers nearly get trampled in the chaos, horses have gone down and have had to be euthanized right there on the track, and beneath it all is perhaps the primal draw of American history: the Native as Other… real Indians with feathers in their hair, skillfully riding bareback, out here on the plains, for the first time in almost 100 years.” S. Marsh, Victory Journal
“The first Mystic Lake Derby was held in 2013. Andy Vig, the son of powerful tribal chairman Stanley Vig, was put in charge of coordinating the race, and although the racing results weren’t that exciting by themselves—most of the participants were used to shorter tracks, so Canterbury’s mile long oval produced blowouts—the action and pageantry have become a big draw. Ever since, the Indian Relay heats have taken place between races during the Canterbury’s biggest weekend of the year: the Mystic Lake Derby, a race day with $200,000 in cumulative purses, that serves, according to Canterbury CEO Randy Sampson, as the track’s crown jewel of the racing season.
The Derby brings in the best horses in the region, and that kind of quality brings out the eccentric rich people with the funny hats. But it’s the Indian Relay racing that brings out casual racing fans and suburban families…It’s Thursday, eight hours before the first heat, and Richard Longfeather, a Dakota Indian and relay team owner hailing from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, has just been disqualified.
He pulled into Shakopee this morning after making the eight-hour drive with his wife, their son, his son’s best friend, and their nephew, and a trailer full of five thoroughbred horses… According to SMSC’s Andy Vig, one of Longfeather’s horses didn’t have the correct vaccination paperwork. He’s near tears as Vig explains that he shares his disappointment, especially since Longfeather’s team was the only Dakota Sioux relay team at the event—meaning that in some ways his team would have been the de facto local favorites…As Longfeather huddles with his family to worry about having to make the long drive back to Little Eagle, South Dakota, the other 13 relay teams are getting their horses situated in the receiving barn.
One of the favorites to win the relay is Starr School, a Blackfeet team from Browning, Montana. Last June they won the Muckleshoot Gold Cup, a big $50,000 purse Indian relay held at Emerald Downs, a track owned by the Muckleshoot tribe out in Seattle, Washington…Because of the Muckleshoot win, Starr School’s 21-year-old Isiah Crossguns is quickly becoming a star in the relay world. Like most relay riders, Crossguns is tall, much taller than the horseworld’s typical jockey…
It’s just after before twilight, and time for the first heat of the evening. In an unexpected development, somehow the veterinarian back in Standing Rock has unearthed the correct herpes papers and Richard Longfeather’s team has been cleared to race. This would be fishy if this had happened in any other sport, and it is in this one as well, I guess, but when I find Richard by the barn with his horses, he’s ready to race, wearing his homemade lime green team Longfeather jersey.
After the intros of each team over the P.A. system by ‘the Voice of Canterbury’ (and Minnesota Vikings super bro play-by-play man) Paul Allen, the entire field gets off to a galloping start.
To no one’s surprise, Isiah Crossguns takes the lead over the first lap. He’s ahead by more than five lengths on the backside before being slowly reeled in by a horse and rider from the Tissidimit team, from on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho.
On the second lap Tissidimit takes the lead. Their rider maintains his lead coming out of the second exchange.
Crossguns gives one more valiant charge on the back stretch, but Tissidimit’s rider has obviously left something in reserve for the home stretch, and wins by two lengths at the stripe... Longfeather’s team is set to race in the second heat. His son Jace feels like he’s carrying too much weight for the the mile long track at Canterbury, so his friend Justin Fox is atop the horse. When the gun goes off, Longfeather’s thoroughbred doesn’t react, perhaps due to the last minute rider switch.
The previous year’s champion relay team, DD Express—Sioux Indians from the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota shoot ahead by 20 lengths. Longfeather’s team finishes dead last…As with every other heat, the exchange box positions are determined by a random drawing before the race. The best hope for a team is to draw a spot on the near end, to avoid as much of the chaos in the middle as possible.
Starr School and Tissidimit are the lucky ones tonight, drawing the first and second boxes, respectively, while DD Express is the least, drawing the seventh spot on the far end of the boxes.
DD Express comes out hot, with Starr School second and Tissidimit in third. But on the back stretch of the first lap, the other Oglala Sioux team, Brew Crew, vigorously “goes to the stick,” as they say, and takes the lead into the first exchange…
Paul Allen interrupts the middle of his call to shriek, ‘DD EXPRESS HAS BEEN ELIMINATED! DD EXPRESS HAS BEEN ELMINATED!’
Allen explains it has to do with the crash on the first exchange.
‘THE DEFENDING CHAMPION WILL NOT REPEAT AS CHAMPIONS!’
“HERE COMES TISSIDIMIT MAKING A BIG MOVE!” Allen bellows.
When Tissidimit starts to slide back around the final turn, Allen accuses the slowing horse of “doing the moonwalk,” but they quickly reengage.
Abrahamson fades just at the wire and…It was going to be a photo finish.
The slow motion replay on the jumbotron makes it look like Brew Crew had won by a nose. The Oglala Sioux are now out on the track and they are yelling, ‘WE ARE THE HORSE NATION! WE ARE THE HORSE NATION!’
‘We await the official results,’ Allen cautions.
After another few interminable minutes of silence, we all realize something is wrong. Paul Allen comes back and again directs our attention to the large infield monitor. He explains that right before the wire, Sylvan Brown reached across and grabbed the reins of Tissidimit’s horse. The Zapruder-like evidence is blatant.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Paul Allen comes in over the loudspeaker again, this time sounding like a disappointed school principal, ‘the original winner, Brew Crew, has been disqualified.’ The crowd gasps.
‘And the new Indian Relay Horse Racing Champion is Tissidimit.’
After Tissidimit is awarded gaudy golden belt buckles and an oversized check for $7200—their portion of the purse—I walk next to Cerino on the way back to the barn. He is amped from the race, of course, and reveals that Sylvan Brown, the rider of Brew Crew, had called him a “motherfucker as he grabbed his inside reigns.
‘We had words after the race,’ he explained. ‘But instead of those words going to fighting, I told him just to don’t let it happen next time.’ He took a breath. ‘I got to chill so I can come back next year.’
And with that, he heads into the barn to celebrate with his teammates.”