Breaking a four-year string without a death, a horse drowned in the Okanogan River after breaking its leg in a preliminary race on the steep, 220-foot Omak Stampede Suicide Race hill Friday. The mount, Little Big Man, was the 23rd to die in the last three decades, including three horses in 2004, leading to annual demonstrations at the world-famous race by members of PAWS and other rights groups ."What it is, is animal abuse, pure and simple," says local PAWS spokesperson Mark Coleman as the Stampede prepares for its 79th annual running this weekend.
Over three days of racing, four riders, in order, broke an arm, a rib, a jaw and a tailbone during the race down the soft dirt surface of Suicide Hill, sloped at a dramatic 62-degree angle; others fell into the river and got stepped on by horses.
"I was underwater," said Loren Marchand, winner the three previous years, "and the horses came over the top of me." He was able to remount his horse, but once out of the water, realized he'd had the wind knocked out of him. He got down and took a couple steps. "I knew then my foot was broken," he said.
Only eight horses and riders, of the original 20 entrants, were still competing for the downhill purse on the final day.
A field of 15 horses and jockeys qualified for this year's race at the Stampede, according to the Wenatchee World. The event, an annual multi-million-dollar economic shot in the arm for the North Central Washington area, opens for business Thursday.
Pete Palmer, the race official who handles the Suicide run under a contract between the Colvilles and the Stampede, said the Okanogan River is running a foot higher than it was last year, the World reports. When Little Big Man fractured his front leg and then hit the water during a qualifying run Friday, he had difficulty in the current and couldn't be saved in time by rescue boats. His jockey was uninjured.
In a news release, Palmer said "When we lose a horse it impacts the entire racing community. We are saddened by the loss of Little Big Man and extend our prayers to the Jerry Ford Racing Family," the horse's owner.
PAWS has counted 22 Suicide Race horse deaths from 1983 to the last one in 2007 (leaving 50 earlier years of racing unaccounted for). Spokesperson Coleman, labeling the race animal abuse, told KING-TV yesterday, "For some reason, there's an exception [for] rodeos. So if you have a rodeo, you can have all the animal abuse that you want."
Past Suicide Races, Humane Society video