Omak, Washington is a remote town in northern Washington, on the border of the Colville Indian reservation. The town is known for its annual rodeo, the Omak Stampede, and the controversial Suicide Race that runs with it.
It has been called “The Deadliest Horse Race in the World.”
Cancelled in 2020, the insanely treacherous Suicide Race returns to Omak, Washington, in this year’s Stampede set for August 12-15, 2021.
The race is known for the portion where horses and riders run down Suicide Hill, a 62-degree slope.
Competitors ride a horse 50 feet to the edge of a sandy bluff. They plunge 225 feet down the bluff to the Okanogan River, swim or wade across and race 500 yards to the finish line in the stampede arena. The race takes place each day of the Stampede.
Marketing gimmick or tradition?
The Suicide Race, also promoted as the World Famous Suicide Race, is a horse race in the northwest United States in Omak, Washington.
First run in 1935, the Suicide Race was the brainchild of Claire Pentz, publicity chairman for the Stampede, after failing to attract big crowds with boxing, trained zebras and stock car racing, according to some.
Stampede 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.
How horses die
Horses die from collisions, overexertion and drowning. Broken bones resulting from collisions and mass pileups on Suicide Hill cause the vast majority of deaths. The path starts out wide but due to its steep angle, and the fact that the race is often run in the dark, horses are not able to see that it narrows as it approaches the Okanogan River, creating a bottleneck. Because of the angle of the hill, the depth of the sand on the hill and the speed of the horses being thrown down it, they are not able to stop.
Other times, one horse will lose his footing and begin a series of head over heel somersaults down the hill. Other horses trip over or are hit by falling horses, causing a massive spill. Additional horses have broken bones on the rocks lining the bed of the Okanogan River; others have drowned in it. These incidences have been well documented over the years.
By the way, no riders have been killed in the race in the past several decades.
“Except for safety measures that have been added, the race is run today as it was in 1935 ‘no holds barred’ on a course that starts 50 feet from a sandy bluff across the Okanogan River from the Stampede arena. Horses and riders race 225 feet down the bluff to the river, swim or wade across and dash 500 yards to the finish line in the center of the Stampede arena,” says the Omak Stampede on its website.
Safety measures? What safety measures? Pull the other one. There is no way to make the horses safe, except not to run it.
“It is unclear how many horses or people have died in the race since its inception in 1935,” reports PAWS. In the last 26 years at least 24 horses have died, including three in 2004 and one in 2012.
Why isn’t this illegal?
Washington law prohibits the “injury or death of animals for amusement or gain” and the RCW16.52.205 description of animal cruelty is (1) A person is guilty of animal cruelty in the first degree when, except as authorized in law, he or she intentionally:
- inflicts substantial pain on,
- causes physical injury to, or
- kills an animal by a means causing undue suffering, or forces a minor to inflict unnecessary pain, injury, or death on an animal.
Unfortunately, another law, RCW 16.52.185 has been used to exempt the horses who run in the Suicide Race under the clause of “normal and usual course of rodeo events.”
Oddly, though, there is no other rodeo in Washington State or in the U.S. as a whole that features an event similar to the Omak Suicide Race, and the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association has stated that they do not consider this kind of event as part of the rodeos it sanctions.
Shannon Dininny, “3 horses die in Omak’s Suicide Race — Animal rights group renews its criticism of long-running event“, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 13 Aug 2004.
Nick Timiraos, The Race Where Horses Die, The Wall Street Journal, 11 August 2007.
Associated Press, “Horse dies in Omak qualifying race”, 6 Aug 2012, Spokesman-Review.
© FUND FOR HORSES