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`North America’s original extreme sport’: Inside the world of Indian relay racing with the Spokane Tribe

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 4, 2021

By Jordan Tolley-Turner The Spokesman-Review

Barreling around the final corner of the track, the jockey points the nose of his horse down the stretch and tries to slow down just enough to jump off as close as possible to his waiting teammates .

In a span of seconds, a teammate known as the “mugger” catches the exuberant first horse as two other members try their best to contain a pair of others awaiting their turn.

This is done as horses tear past and other bareback riders do the same only feet apart, all focusing on getting the cleanest and fastest exchange possible as a multitude of variables could make or break their race in the blink of an eye.

Once on, the jockey and the second horse begin to kick the dust up, leaving whatever happened during the first exchange in the past.

The team will continue this wild exchange in the hope that its last horse and jockey – the anchor – finishes strong and wins.

This is Indian relay racing.

Commonly described as “North America’s original extreme sport,” success in this game of speed and precision takes determination, grit, skill, dedication and bonding.

Team SP’Q’N’I (pronounced Spo-ka-knee, the Salish language version of Spokane) has spent 2021 putting the pieces of the puzzle together, and the connections, those of family and culture, have made all the difference.

Thomas John Flett, more commonly known as TJ, spent years on the sidelines watching as horses thundered past. Flett, a 32-year-old from Wellpinit, can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to relay race. His grandfather owned racehorses. Then last year, he joined his father-in-law, James Best, to begin the process of finding the right horses for relay racing.

“We were looking for a little bit of a shorter horse but built with speed,” Flett said. “You’ll never know with a horse, it’s a hit-and-miss situation. We just kind of got lucky with good friendships with a lot of horsemen around who told us what to look for and give a guideline to go with; it really helped us out.”

When a good group of horses became available in the fall, they jumped at the chance.

Now that Flett had four fast horses, a team was ready to be assembled.

Flett didn’t have to look far for SP’Q’N’I’s first recruit. His good friend Donny Mendoza was ready to race.

Then came a referral from Francis Marshan, his good friend: jockey Riley Prescott needed a team.

Prescott, a 25-year-old from Omak, has six years of relay racing experience and multiple teams to his résumé. He agreed to a trial run and liked what he saw, agreeing to join team SP’Q’N’I the same night.

Prescott would also bring his buddy David Christensen to the team as the fourth and final member.

Flett’s lifelong dream was beginning to take shape. He had his four horses and four men. But there’s so much more to team SP’Q’N’I and the fundamentals of the sport.

Although Indian relay racing may not look like the typical event on television, the competitors are athletes in their own right, pushing through the physical and mental battles that must be won to achieve greatness.

For example, competitors must deal with extra anxiety from the possibility of getting kicked by a horse or a mishap as the jockey leaps.

And just like any great competitors, dedication has been key to SP’Q’N’I’s year.

Jockeys must stay in shape and remain agile.

The horses were trained and patterned for months, learning to be jumped on bareback, coming into the team after a lap, being caught by the mugger and everything in between.

* * *

It’s Saturday afternoon at the Ferry County Fairgrounds and team SP’Q’N’I is ready to race.

Once the mugger lets him loose, Boone does what he was bred to do: run fast.

After a fast start and a clean exchange, Prescott and Ol’ Man are gone and team SP’Q’N’I is in first as they start the second lap.

Ol’ Man’s hooves slam the dirt as he barrels around the corner a full length ahead. Prescott prepares to leap off the rushing animal.

Prescott slides over and off, his feet hitting the dirt as … Ol’ Man speeds past the awaiting mugger.

Horse and jockey miss the exchange. They continue to thunder down the track. Prescott finally slows Ol’ Man and turns the horse back to the team as another team darts past – in the lead.

Flett grabs a hold of Ol’ Man as the next horse, Big Brown, takes off. SP’Q’N’I now trails the entire pack.

But Big Brown’s stride simply isn’t enough.

They pace down the stretch after leader Abrahamson Relay crosses into a first-place finish. With one mishap, team SP’Q’N’I must settle for fourth.

* * *

Living many miles apart is a challenge. Some members must drive hours to practice. For Prescott, traveling takes the biggest toll.

“The traveling takes a lot when you’re on the road quite often,” Prescott said. “Usually we’ll be in Montana for a couple races, then go to Auburn at Emerald Downs, you can race in Minnesota, Oklahoma, Nebraska, so you’re on the road pretty often, especially during all the fairs like Pendleton. This year, it was about every weekend we were racing.”

Flett views the psychological effects as the most difficult aspect of the sport.

“Being consistent and trying to keep a positive mind even when we have a bad exchange, just trying to have a quick turnaround with the mindset to let that go,” Flett said.

But the bonds and relationships the sport fosters may just be its most important component.

Indian relay is a team sport, after all, Flett said, and strong connections between members isn’t just helpful, but necessary. And Flett would know – he is Wellpinit High School’s girls basketball coach .

“When we first came together as a team, we didn’t really know much of each other,” Flett said. “We had to figure each other out to know our strengths, know our weaknesses and then try to build together as one.”

The team members learned their roles and tendencies. They grew closer chasing wins and white lines. A team brotherhood built on trust solidified .

“You’ve got to trust that everyone is going to do their job when it comes time,” Prescott said.

And, of course, the other athletes, the four-legged kind, are an equally important part of the equation.

There’s Boone, Jedd, Big Brown and Ol’ Man. Seven days a week they’re cared for, and a connection begins to form early on during galloping and preparation.

The horses are like family to Flett. He describes their relationship as similar to that with his children – “hurting when they hurt.”

But every race and practice session, they grow closer to becoming one, with the goal of running to win.

And just like with the human members of the team, a sense of trust is established. Each race, Prescott trusts the horses will carry him around the track and do their job. He says it’s the same with the horses: they trust that they won’t get injured when they’re in the hands of the team.

“It’s amazing and it’s hard to explain; the bond is so close it’s like they’re a relation,” Flett said, “The way I always put it is, ‘I take better care of my horses than I do myself,’ because they come first.”

Flett also views his family and closest friends, who’ve been just as excited and invested in the venture, as a backbone of the team.

Many within Flett’s inner circle have helped care for the horses, making sure they’re in top shape and feeding and watering them day in and day out.

“Family has been everything to make this successful,” Flett said, adding, “It’s been crucial and pretty fun, because we got a lot closer, spent a lot of time together with these horses.”

SP’Q’N’I jumped in the deep end of relay, competing in events alongside some of the best to call relay racing their business. One such example is another one of Washington’s prominent teams, Abrahamson Relay, that has taken prestigious wins such as the invite-only events at Emerald Downs and the “Challenge of Champions” held in Casper, Wyoming. They’ve been some of the fiercest competitors of SP’Q’N’I’s year, and Flett has nothing but respect for them.

“They’re one of the first teams that was willing to lend a helping hand and give advice,” Flett said, “They’re an awesome team, and that’s what we aspire to be. Great like them, consistent like them and become a family like they are.”

The respect is mutual for Abrahamson Relay’s jockey, Scott Abrahamson, who is also the cousin of SP’Q’N’I’s Mendoza.

“They’re doing good for their first year, that’s for sure,” Abrahamson said. “Sure didn’t take them long to put the team together, and they’re doing pretty dang good.”

Flett has found the value in competing against veterans of the sport, taking the opportunity to learn from the best.

“I learned from the older teams that have been there and done that. I always pick minds and ask them how they communicate, because everybody does it differently and everybody learns differently. I’m just learning myself,” Flett said.

Many cogs and gears have been working together to help Flett and team SP’Q’N’I chase their dreams all year long. But over the course of Flett’s years as a resident of the Spokane Reservation and frequenting local racetracks, he has witnessed the sacred horse culture fading from the Spokane Tribe .

Flett’s passion for horses goes back to his grandfather’s animals, but many kids haven’t gotten the same exposure as he did and end up playing sports such as basketball and softball. Flett knows there’s nothing wrong with this, but he’s always wanted relay to be an opportunity for the younger generations .

Now that team SP’Q’N’I has flung the doors wide open and a sense of pride is growing in the area, youth have shown Flett interest in the horses and relay racing.

“Bringing the horseman back was always a dream of mine, and I never thought it was something I would be able to do,” Flett said. “I want to get a kids relay team, I want to get my people, the Spokane people, to become horsemen again.”

Recently, team SP’Q’N’I raced in the famous Pendleton Roundup and would run two third places along with winning the Friday heat.

The team then concluded the season with the Championship of Champions in Casper, Wyoming, where they would run three heats consisting of third, second and first places against the best teams in North America.

As fall sets in, the horses can rest until March, when training resumes. Flett hopes to purchase two new additions as well, in a bittersweet end to a year full of hard work, passion and exceeded expectations.

“The year went a lot better than I ever expected,” Flett said. “It takes teams years to finally get wins, but we pulled off a few wins and put our names out there to where we’re getting recognized.”

In a year’s time, SP’Q’N’I traveled many miles, ran against intimidating opponents, put together strong victories, and now they’ve been invited to races in distant states such as Minnesota. One may be overwhelmed by it all, but Flett is a simple man with one agenda .

“My plan is just to be better than I was this year,” Flett said.

In this game of swiftness and rapid changes, a few things are for certain come 2022: Team SP’Q’N’I will keep working and chasing wins. They’ll keep running against the best horses and teams in the nation. They’ll keep representing their culture, relying on relationships strengthened by the sport – and gunning for greatness.

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