Eighteen horses form an imperfect line on a hot August night, their 18 jockeys clad in jeans. Here on a sandy bluff in the small town of Omak, four hours east of Seattle and several worlds away, riders and spectators alike move with nervous energy, anxious for the race to start. One jockey wears a helmet topped with a pink mohawk, another with a GoPro camera. One horse, sponsored by a local marijuana dispensary, sports painted pot leaves on its rump. Wispy white eagle feathers hang from others, emblems of the Native American heritage the men share.
A summer carnival glows below, neon outlines of rides called the Orbiter and the Fireball, metal towers that came into town on tractor trailers. Farther into the Okanogan Highlands, a casino twinkles alone on Indian Reservation land. It’s August 11, 2016, and even an hour past sunset the air holds onto most of the heat from the 90-degree day.
A “whoooop!” erupts from the gathered crowd as the animals sidestep and bob their heads behind the chalk starting line. His race number bright across his chest, 18-year-old Scott Abrahamson eyes the sandy dirt in front of the line, groomed like a golf course sand trap. His long bubblegum-pink sleeves mean he’s easy to spot even in the shadows where floodlights don’t reach, and his helmet blinks with battery-operated toy devil horns. He’s surrounded by both champions—Loren Marchand with seven titles, Tyler Peasley with three—and nervous high schoolers in their first race.
At the crack of a gun, the horses charge. Their riders lean forward as hooves pound the sandy flat, at least for the first hundred feet. The crowd cheers as soon as the pistol sounds, cries and hoots blossoming into the dark.
Then 18 horses go off a cliff.
The riders shift in their saddles as their mounts fly down an incline steeper than a ski jump. The best jockeys, the veterans, barely lean back coming off the hill, reins clasped in the left hand and riding crops in the right. Others grasp a bar they’ve rigged on the back of their saddles they call the “oh shit handle.”
The spectators’ cries reach full pitch when the pack is halfway to the waterway at the base of the hill, a thick ribbon of black that flows left to right. The horses plunge into the inky Okanogan River en masse, hooves hitting the shallow bottom, and all but one charge across to the opposite bank. The stadium on the far side is lit up like a Friday-night football game, floodlights bright atop red, white, and blue bleachers, and Scott and his hot-pink sleeves emerge first in the dirt oval, just 45 seconds into the race. As they cross the finish line, Peasley is right on his tail.
Fifteen horses follow, minus the one that tumbled in the river. A crew attends to the downed horse from the deck of a small drift boat; while the stadium roars, a veterinarian surveys the animal and notes that it’s already gone, likely drowned.
Back atop the hill, Colville tribal elders watch through binoculars before one spots something in the sandy dirt, an eagle feather dislodged by the chaos. They circle the downed quill, addressing the spirit it represents, the eagle that travels in both worlds, before one of the elders lifts the feather to return it to its owner.
This is the World Famous Suicide Race.
There will be four races total during Omak Stampede, always the second weekend in August. Each race awards five points to the first-place finisher, four to the second, and so on; the overall winner clinches the King of the Hill title on Sunday, and $40,000 in prize money is distributed. It’s the highlight of this Central Washington town’s year, a tradition that draws thousands of spectators—and animal-rights protesters.
Omak straddles the border of the Colville Reservation, home of almost every racer, horse owner, and trainer. The contest is a rite of passage, they say, a proving ground for men—and even a few women—coming of age more than a century after actual horseback warfare. Beyond the turgid flow of the Okanogan River through town, the reservation sprawls over 1.4 million acres of highlands, brittle with brown grass in late summer. There the Native American communities are plagued by poverty and unemployment.
If the Suicide Race was a small-town Friday-night football game, teenaged Scott Abrahamson would be its star quarterback. He’s an ace student, focused and polite, with technical internships and honor rolls to his name, but this weekend he’s a jockey with a King of the Hill title to defend. All eyes are on him.
He gets sick before every big race. “Everything hits me and my body,” Scott says. “I can barely walk.” His cousin calls it good luck; Scotty puking means they’re going to do well.
In the hours before Friday’s race, the second of four, Scott’s prepping in the triangular Owners and Jockey’s paddock in the middle of the fairgrounds. By 5pm, Omak veterinarian Jai Tuttle holds court at one end of the dusty enclosure, near standing fans that muster a little manufactured breeze. As they wait to parade their horses for Doc Tuttle, owners angle water hoses over the animals’ backs.
Everyone older than Scott calls him Scotty. This year’s printed program, in the roster of winners dating back to 1935, calls him that. After he won in 2015, he became small-town famous, no longer just the good kid who excelled at basketball and wrestling. People holler, “Go Scotty” at him all weekend.
His father was famous too. That’s what happens when you win the Suicide Race; Leroy Abrahamson took the title in 2002, but was best known for his prowess in the Indian Relay, a more widespread style of racing where one jockey hops from horse to horse. Leroy, Scott has heard, would flit from one mount to the next with only a single foot brushing the ground.
Scott doesn’t remember his first time in a saddle but assumes it was before he could walk, though he largely gave it up in elementary school, when his parents split. His father was the horse guy; his mother was all about school. So he became a standout student in Coulee Dam, a reservation town in the shadow of the 50-story hydroelectric giant. When his father died in 2009, he was drawn back to horses.
“I’m sorta doing all this for him,” Scott says, hesitant. His mother wasn’t wild about the racing, but he didn’t falter at school, scoring an engineering internship with the Bureau of Reclamation. Slight and muscular, his five-foot-nine stature is too tall for a throughbred jockey but about average for this race. His hair is short and straight, spiking around his head like a halo, and he likes to hide his eyes behind sunglasses.
The summer he was 16, after his sophomore year of high school, Scott entered his first Suicide Race. Atop a small gelding named Kinky, he fell as they crested the top of the hill on the Thursday race, flipping over the horse’s shoulder. On Friday the pair wrecked in the water.
“I flipped over and everybody ran me over,” he says. “Everyone says it happens so fast, but when I was in it, it was like slow motion.” Finally, on Saturday, they made it through the entire race, galloping past the finish line in the stadium. Then Sunday the pair wrecked again.
A new horse was in order. His trainer, George Marchand, is a giant within the Suicide Race world and holder of three titles. He’d lost his own father at 14 and rode against Leroy Abrahamson 15 years ago, so he guided Scott, this time to a nighttime ride on a quarter horse–thoroughbred mix named Eagle Boy. The butterscotch-colored gelding was only about five years younger than the rider.
“It was pitch black and dusty,” remembers Scott. The hills of the reservation are dotted with brush and ponderosa pine, but he could make out little from his saddle. They were on top of a hill, he knew that, and that George had taken off.
He gave Eagle Boy his head as they sped over the uneven terrain. “We were jumping trees and dodging trees,” recalls Scott, but they moved as a unit. “I was like dang—he trusts me.” Matching horse to rider is alchemy.
In 2015, in his second year racing and only 17 years old, Scott on Eagle Boy tied for first overall with six-time victor Loren Marchand, George’s nephew. With a wide grin stretched across his face, the rising high school senior played rock-paper-scissors with his cochamp for a King of the Hill prize bridle.
The name World Famous Suicide Race might be a bit of hyperbole, but the race is nothing if not infamous. It emerged in scrappy Omak where a Great Depression population boom—all the way to 2,500 souls—launched an annual rodeo in 1933. As publicity chairman, furniture store owner Claire Pentz proposed a dramatic steeplechase to draw spectators, inspired by mountain races across the reservation at Keller, where riders charged a dry channel in the Sanpoil River. He knew how to sell it: He gave his 1935 creation a catchy name.
The World Famous Suicide Race ran every summer, the marquee event at the four-day Omak Stampede rodeo. Dynasties were born when the inaugural race’s third-place finisher, Alex Dick, won regularly through 1965. There have been seven Marchand riders over the years, six Abrahamsons, nearly a dozen named Pakootas. The unofficial motto, one that appears on winners’ belt buckles, is “Wimps Need Not Apply.”
The 210-foot hill, most say, is a 62-degree slope. Or it’s 54.7 degrees, as measured by a race official in 1993. Others say it’s more like 30. Regardless, it’s terrifying. From the top, the hill feels as steep as a hard ski run; a black diamond, but not a double black. Scrambling up on foot, you might use your hands.
The stampede and race remain intertwined, but in 1999 the Colville Tribes boycotted to protest a change to their camping space on the fairgrounds. The Stampede lost attendance and revenue, and the following year a deal was struck: The tribes got more control over the race organization, and the encampment got its park space.
Family ties bind many of the owners, trainers, and jockeys, and while a few aren’t Native American at all, they’re the exception. This is the biggest sporting event in the region, the Super Bowl of north-central Washington. “This is the only time we get to play cowboys and Indians,” jokes one organizer, Ernie Williams.
Doc Tuttle is fairly new to the race gig, but between her ease with fidgety horses and no-nonsense demeanor, the veterinarian exudes authority. One by one she clears the horses for Friday’s race, directing owners to walk each thousand-pound animal in a figure eight as her eyes stay trained on forelegs and haunches, scrutinizing for swollen tendons or joints.
No one can pretend the Suicide Race isn’t controversial. As early as 1939, the protests started; Humane Society president Glen McLeod succeeded in canceling a mountain race in nearby Hunters, then traveled to Omak and Keller hoping to do the same. “Why, even the riders call it a ‘suicide race,’ ” McLeod told The Seattle Daily Times before a similar trip in 1941.
Animal rights groups started keeping a tally of dead horses in 1983, with one count now at 22. “The reality is that the race is viewed as part of the Omak Stampede rodeo, and rodeos are protected under state law,” says Seattle Humane Society spokesman Dan Paul, but points out that rapid shifts in public sentiment swiftly made SeaWorld orca shows and circus elephant acts extinct.
People for Ethical Treatment of Animals has run letter-writing campaigns. In 1993, the Northwest’s PAWS, or Progressive Animal Welfare Society, tried a more robust tactic, filing a lawsuit that alleged organizers harm horses for profit, but a Superior Court judge threw out the case. In 1996, a PAWS member sued the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office and the rodeo for roughing him up when he videotaped a horse being euthanized; the suit settled for $64,500.
For the organizers, the response is simple: The race is merely an extension of their horse-infused culture. Every rider points out that they ride similar hills during wild-horse roundups and cattle work.
Horses have to pass three checks before they’re allowed entry into the race: the vet examination, a swim test, and what’s called a hill test, where horses must round the top of Suicide Hill without hesitation.
Tuttle isn’t from the reservation; she isn’t originally from Omak. But even as an outsider, the one who has to put horses down if they’re hurt, she doesn’t think it’s inhumane.
“These guys use horses that love it,” she says; the horses are bred to it and run steep hills regularly on the remote corners of the reservation. She rarely has to disqualify a horse because owners who spot lameness usually scratch. “It does hold a real special place in the Native culture. It does.” And that horse Thursday night that likely drowned? She considers it. “He was doing what he loved and he had a quick and honorable death.”
Friday night’s race is classic and clean; no bad wrecks. As always, the riders reach the starting line by crossing the river on the Highway 97 bridge, closed to traffic. Hooves clomp on the asphalt as the parade passes a road sign that reads, “Tribal Code Laws Apply.” There are no rules to apply in the Suicide Race once the gun is fired; riders can whip each other, pull each other’s reins. No helmets required. No wimps.
The results echo the previous night: Scott Abrahamson and Eagle Boy come in first, Tyler Peasley on Spade in second. When Scott wins, he raises his right hand above his head, palm out, fingers outstretched. His father’s gesture.
Scott was only four when Leroy won the Suicide Race. “Everyone said he was one of the greats,” he says. “It’s kinda hard to fill his shoes.” Instead he fills his horns. He wears Leroy’s blinking red devil headpiece, the kind of bauble most 18-year-olds would don at a Halloween party.
Scott’s idols were the riders who won in the late 2000s, including the 30-year-old three-time champion who came in second to him during this weekend’s first two races. As a kid he’d run down hills playing at Suicide Race, imaginary whip flying, yelling, “I’m Tyler Peasley!” After his 2015 win, Scott noticed something: “The kids run around saying they’re me.”
It’s after 10pm when the racehorses have completed their cooldown laps and have been loaded into trailers for the ride home. Scott accompanies George Marchand to Omak Lake, 15 miles out of town, to let Eagle Boy soak before bed.
Saturday night’s Suicide Race is the biggest. The 7,700-seat arena is packed, and lines form at every fun house and stomach-destroying ride in the carnival outside. Booths hawk curly fries, cotton candy, and foot-longs, though the longest lines are reliably at a taco truck.
But that’s not the whole Omak Stampede. On the east side of the arena, a mirror festival, maybe even larger: the Indian Encampment. Rows of teepees surround a round pavilion for dancing and drum performances, with RVs and tents beyond that. Spectators bring their own camp chairs to supplement the few bleachers. Booths sell jewelry, T-shirts, and dream catchers, and while some of the food is the same—nothing is as universal as curly fries—more signs are handwritten, and many vend Indian tacos and huckleberry lemonade.
Before the rodeo begins, the arena’s industrial speakers blast pop country songs over every acre. The festivities begin with a series of anthems and processions, recognizing the neighboring nations of Canada and the Colville Tribes. During the ride-in, dozens of rodeo queens from around the West shoot into the center oval on horseback, one by one, decked in every shade of sparkle.
The announcer introduces each event, then banters with the rodeo clown when things get slow or a bull rider needs a moment to limp off the dirt. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association produces the classic rodeo events, ones with more white riders than Native: bull riding, steer wrestling, team roping, barrel racing. Specialty acts bridge the competitive sports: trick riders and one blonde woman who does a kind of partner dance with an unbridled palomino horse to the blaring sounds of a country song called “Free.” It ends with the horse placing its blond head in her lap.
The Suicide Race is the final blockbuster event. Spectators wade up to their knees into the Okanogan River just upstream of the race crossing, bare feet on slimy rocks. Signs still note that video recording is prohibited, but they’re roundly ignored in the age of cell phones.
Despite the shocking name, the only rider death since anyone’s kept close records was one who drowned on his way to the starting line—though there are plenty of close calls. In 2002, the year Leroy Abrahamson took home the title, racer Naomie Peasley took a tumble so bad she fractured her skull. She recovered, but not before flatlining twice in the medic helicopter.
In its anti–Suicide Race materials, PAWS airs a common criticism of the race: its authenticity. “Organizers currently contend that the Suicide Race has roots in Native American tradition but, in fact, an Anglo conceived the race as a publicity stunt,” reads its statement. Detractors hang on that detail, its origins with furniture salesman Claire Pentz.
To riders and trainers, though, Pentz is irrelevant, and they point to the deep roots of horse culture. For Scott, the point of the race is clear: “Showing that a young man is becoming a warrior, becoming a man.”
The race, the encampment—it’s the tribes’ biggest invitation into their world. “There’s more that people don’t see behind these walls, about Indian life...sweat lodges, medicine,” adds Aaron Carden, a retired racer who now teaches Native language on the reservation. Of the borders around that world, he says, “It’s not our fence to keep people out. It’s the fence white men built to keep us out of the area they took.”
The race wasn’t the only thing “created” by a white man; the very invention of a Colville Tribes unit is recent. Long before that, before statehood, before Manifest Destiny, before Lewis and Clark white-privileged their way across the American West, the Okanogan Highlands tribes lived nomadic lives, picking berries and drawing salmon from the massive Columbia River. And racing horses.
First came the incorporation of Washington Territory, then a series of executive orders begun by president Ulysses S. Grant that roped several tribes into three million acres between the Methow Valley and the Columbia River. Others were elbowed into the reservation, linking bands that once stretched from the dusty plains of Washington to the mountains of British Columbia. One chief invited a famous Indian leader, Chief Joseph, and his Nez Perce followers in 1885. With his band, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation—a patchwork assembly that had no single language or traditional commonality—reached their current 12-tribe size.
Over 125 years the tribes faced what so many other American Indians did—children forced into boarding schools, languages squashed. The federal government forced a cheap buyback of 1.5 million acres, lands still lamented as the lost “North Half.” The Grand Coulee Dam, erected in 1942, blocked spawning salmon with its 550-foot concrete walls; Colville tribal members mourned the loss of Kettle Falls, a historic fishing spot, with a Ceremony of Tears before it was submerged by the dam’s backup.
In the 1960s, the tribes toyed with termination, dissolving the reservation altogether and splitting the lands among its 5,000 members. Reservations had been terminated by the government before, but the Colvilles were the only ones to dare seriously consider it themselves, an unprecedented move of self-governance. Congressional hearings were held but the measure never passed, so the Colville Reservation endured.
The Suicide Race is a separate world from suicide itself, a public health crisis for the Colvilles. Whether spurred by pervasive poverty—reservation unemployment topped 50 percent in 2010—or rampant substance abuse, the suicide rate ballooned to 20 times the national average in 2006. “After that we were in a panic on what we need to do and could do,” says tribal staffer Olivia Wynecoop. Tribal leadership declared a state of emergency, and Wynecoop helped secure grants for education and designating “natural helpers” to be on call for suicide emergencies.
Scott positions Eagle Boy at the western end of the starting line for the Saturday-night race. This isn’t like the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby; horses pace and turn, and the antsy palomino next to him does a sideways prance before the starter pistol goes off. Scott is angry, though later he says he can’t remember why. Trash talk and psych-outs are regular along the starting line, older jockeys trying to ruffle the young ones still gathering their courage.
But three years and one win into the Suicide Race, Scott can ignore the chatter. He and Eagle Boy are still until the gun sounds, then fast to the crest of the hill. Aaron Carden still remembers the feeling 25 years after his first win: “You’re actually flying in the sky. Nobody can take that away from you.”
There’s a commotion, a cloud of dust to Scott’s left, but he’s well in front of the pack as they hit the water. Two strides into the dark water, Eagle Boy stumbles, flinging Scott into the river. His blinking red devil horns disappear under the white churn created by horses on either side. They’re both okay but don’t log a finish.
What Scott couldn’t see was what happened on the top of the hill, to the very first rider off the break. Tyler Peasley, whom Scott idolized as a kid, and who’d placed at Scott’s heels the past two nights, darted off the top of the hill like a raptor after its prey. Peasley’s a little taller than Scott, broader shouldered, and he rides to win. His mount, Spade, got so much air he tucked his back legs underneath him and simply sailed for the first 30 feet of the downward slope.
They were serene in that moment, flying, until Spade’s hooves finally hit the tilted ground again; Peasley pitched over Spade’s front left shoulder before the horse executed a tight somersault. The jockey disappeared under the hooves of the horses behind him and the crowd made a collective, guttural gasp. Peasley’s body didn’t come to a stop until he reached the bottom of the hill.
The final race is also the only daytime race of the weekend; for the first time since the trials and runoff races held before the stampede, they’ll be rushing the hill in full daylight.
The mood in the O&J paddock is subdued, but word is going around that Peasley is stable at a nearby hospital. News will later spread that his injuries included a broken pelvis, hip, and ribs, and the racing community fundraises to support his care and gas money for his family to visit him.
Remarkably, Tyler’s horse, Spade, is unhurt from the tumble, ready to race again. His owner lights a bundle of sage and says a few words over the horse before a new jockey takes the saddle.
For the final time in 2016, Scott follows the parade to the top of Suicide Hill. His jeans have a gaping hole in the knee—real wear from hard riding, not a fashion statement—and his wraparound sunglasses are ’80s big. No devil horns for the daytime race, but, as ever, his name is the one most shouted by the crowds: “Come on Scotty,” over and over.
With 10 points already earned, Scott only needs to place to secure the title. Owner and trainer Marchand tells him not to go all out, and when the gun fires, he doesn’t. He holds back his whip, lets Eagle Boy run the race without extra urging. It’s the smart move, the calculated move, no doubt informed by the disastrous night before. But Scott comes to regret holding back.
Not because it doesn’t work. Scott and Eagle Boy place second, netting four more points and easily clinching his first solo all-around title. But for Scott, the kind of driven athlete who hates to give a single inch, playing it safe feels wrong. Now with two titles to his name, only three years in, he says he’ll ride “until I get broken down and can’t do it no more.”
Three days later, Scott will depart his Coulee Dam home and drive five hours to start his freshman year at Washington State University. As an engineering student he will pull a 3.8 GPA his first semester and a 3.9 the second; he’s lined up two years of scholarships so far and hopes he’ll be able to extend to the full undergrad four.
Scott won’t brag about his Suicide win at college, but he’ll drive home every fall weekend for Indian Relay races, another sport that mixes horsemanship with a touch of anarchy. Around the reservation, he doesn’t have to brag about being King of the Hill; everyone already knows. “He’s the Steph Curry of the Suicide Race,” one tribal member says. “Loren and Tyler are the Lebrons.”
The second weekend of August 2017 is already on everyone’s calendar. Scott will be back on Eagle Boy, who he now half owns with George Marchand—a 49 percent share. He now has a streak to defend. By early June, high winter snows have melted to fill the Okanogan River, and ecologists are warning of water flows two or three times normal. Scott guesses that, with the river this high, it’ll be too deep for the horses to simply wade across during the Suicide Race; they’ll have to swim for the first time since, he believes, 2002. The year his father won it all.
But on Sunday night in August 2016, after the King of the Hill awards and the pictures, he’s just a high school kid again. He wanders the Indian Encampment with friends, waits in line for fry bread.
Under the pavilion, dancers spin and step, decked in elaborate feathered headdresses and beaded robes. Some have numbers pinned to their costumes, like marathon runners, to compete. In a drum tent, the songs are a steady thrum of chants and cries, indecipherable to the visitors who stand awkwardly outside the rows of seated tribal members who are at once both audience and participant.
Picture this: a quiet mountain lake, bordered by rocky hills dotted with ponderosa pine. In daytime Omak Lake is seven miles of brilliant turquoise, but now, at night, it’s a black mirror. Two men drive a horse trailer to its shore, unloading an unsaddled Eagle Boy.
It’s one of George Marchand’s secrets to success; the lake minerals soothe the bumps and scrapes along the horse’s legs. In the midst of the annual Perseid meteor shower, the uncloudy Okanogan skies are perfect for spotting streaks of celestial light, but the men don’t look up as they dissect the day’s race.
Scott holds Eagle Boy’s halter from a dock while the horse wades into the water, breaking the lake’s calm. The water hasn’t yet cooled from baking under another 90-plus degree day, and the hills that round the lake keep the night air still. They’ve survived another madcap contest together, earned another W. They’re back on the reservation, back home. In the silence the only sound is the lapping of the lake water against a horse.