By Al Camp
(Story first printed in Aug. 5 issue of The Chronicle)
OMAK – The Fords of Wellpinit are mourning the loss of a family member Friday night during World-Famous Suicide Race practice here.
Their horse Little Big Man — which was attempting to qualify for its first World-Famous Suicide Race — died after injuring a front leg on the race hill while attempting to complete the third and final qualifying test for the race that follows the Omak Stampede each day later this week.
The horse, owned by Jerry Ford and ridden by Jason Meusy, stumbled at the bottom of Suicide Hill as it entered the fast-flowing Okanogan River.
A rescue boat attempted to recover Little Big Man, Owner’s and Jockey’s Association President Pete Palmer said.
“The horse had difficulty keeping his feet in the river current making it difficult for the boat crew to retrieve the horse,” Palmer said. “Ultimately, the horse went under water and surfaced downstream near the Omak Bridge.”
The association is the sanctioning body for the renowned Suicide Race.
Meanwhile, the family is still trying to come to terms with the loss.
“He was a good swimmer,” Jerry Ford, 39, said after the horse’s death. “What I don’t know is if he broke his leg at the bottom.
“The river wasn’t his weakness,” the Spokane Indian tribal member said. “The hill was his weakness.
“We love our horses, but it’s a chance you take. That’s horse racing.”
The last horse to die in the Suicide Race, a tradition after each running of the Omak Stampede Rodeo for 77 years, was in 2004.
Nobody on scene could remember the last time a horse perished during a practice, but it’s been more than 10 years.
“Although we have had tragic accidents in the past, the Owner’s and Jockey’s Association has implemented strict safety measures to make this race as safe as possible for both horse and rider,” Palmer said. “This race has never been about stardom, money, or glory.
“Long before it was the World-Famous Suicide Race, this race was traditionally done as a rite of passage, a demonstration of our young warriors and their horse’s ability to become one. We have prided ourselves in our ability to demonstrate our traditions as horse warriors.”
While the Ford family recovered the horse, the jockey — the 32-year-old Meusy of Inchelium — checked into Mid V alley Hospital’s emergency room to have an injured left leg examined.
On the banks at the practice, spectators watched the death unfold.
“It was my first one ever,” said Patty Jo Boquist, Riverside, of watching a horse come down the hill. “I watched 10 minutes. Two horses came down. The third did not make it.
“My heart went to my throat. I was sick to my stomach.”
“That’s why they call it the Suicide Race,” said Jason Orman of Tunk Creek, who was standing nearby.
Nespelem’s Casey Nissen, the jockey who rides Super Dave, noticed Little Big Man hesitating at the top of the hill.
“I told him (Meusy), here, let me go first and maybe he (the horse) will follow,” said Nissen, who’s been competing in the race since 1975.
“Two times, we circled and did not go off the top,” Meusy said. “Casey told me we should go together. Once Little Big Man broke over that hill, he tried to catch up with that other horse. I couldn’t hold him back, slow him down.
“When we hit the bottom, the horse went down and I went right over the top of him.”
Nissen, 53, said he did not see what happened behind him as he safely made it across the river.
“I heard the (rescue) boat making a lot of racket,” Nissen said.
Nissen is recovering from a broken shoulder and nose suffered in an endurance race this spring on the Colville Indian Reservation.
Despite his injuries, he still chooses to compete, as do many athletes.
“It was a great horse,” Meusy said, noting the Fords had worked with the horse for six months.
The Fords have two other horses attempting to qualify for the race:
Wicked, owned and ridden by Chris Ford.
Con, owned by Jeff Ford and ridden by Beaudeen Adolph.
Of the 27 horses having passed a veterinary check, only seven have fully qualified to compete.
Fourteen need to pass the hill test and five need to pass both the hill and swim tests, Palmer said.
Little Big Man was a six-year-old bay thoroughbred that won $80,000 as a two-year-old at Seattle’s Emerald Downs race park.
Jerry Ford bought the horse from his brother, Jeff, who in turn had bought the horse a year ago at Portland Meadows.
“I bought it two weeks ago and gave it to my kids,” Jerry Ford said.
“He was just a racy horse,” Jeff Ford said. “It was his first time down the Suicide Hill.”
Jerry Ford plans to sing a traveling song for the horse when it’s buried.
“The Owner’s and Jockey’s Association would like to extend our prayers to the Jerry Ford Horse Racing Family,” Palmer said. “Owners, jockeys and horses train hard year round for this race and 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.”
Practices were to continue Saturday, the last day to qualify and pay an entry fee to the race.