Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's 50th year for Roman chariot racer

Veteran horseman, 77, set for two events every day at stampede

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Elgin Bell, your chariot awaits, for the 50th straight year.

A Morris native son and a veteran horseman, Bell will drive his team of thoroughbred horses in two events per day at the 51st Manitoba Stampede and Exhibition on Thursday through Sunday at the Stampede Grounds in Morris.

Bell, 77, will race a team in the Big Chariots and Suicide Ben Hur events held each day of the stampede.

"Elgin and his family, his father, Bob, and his brother, (Bill), have been a big part of the stampede and they've been around from the beginning," said Barry Lewis, the stampede's operations co-chairman.

Lewis said when he was a teenager in the 1970s, he worked for Bell, warming up his teams for him at events.

"Elgin helped a lot of local people involved in rodeo. They started as kids, helping and running with him, and they're grown men now and still involved," Lewis said. "It's a hobby but it's a passion. Elgin grew up loving it and that's why he's still doing it at his age."

Bell said he's driven a team in every Manitoba Stampede except the first when his dad drove the team.

"I started, and then I just kept going," Bell said. "Years ago, we used to run at a lot of different places but a lot of places don't do that (chariot races) anymore. We used to go pretty near every weekend all summer long."

The Suicide Ben Hur event, so named because of its likeness to the chariot race in the famous 1959 movie, is one of the stampede's showcase events.

It is quite a spectacle. It involves drivers wearing ancient Roman-style costumes who are racing teams of four thoroughbreds, 15 to 16 hands high, who are racing side by side at full gallop after a running start. There's an inherent element of danger as there are usually three teams on the track at once racing neck and neck at speeds that can reach 50 km/h.

"It's a good race and it looks good because you're dressed up, you've got four horses. When you get four horses coming down the track at the same time, you don't see that too often," said Bell, who said his sister gave him a complete Roman costume several years ago. "I don't wear the breastplate anymore. It doesn't bend. I just use the helmet and the cape that goes behind you."

The chariot itself measures only about 76 centimetres by 1.2 metres so drivers must balance themselves using their stance and their grip on the lines as they drive.

"It's quite a feat in itself to be able to control four thoroughbreds driving like that, it's really something to see," Lewis said. "It's a real good show of horsemanship and talent as a driver."

Teams of two horses are used in the Big Chariots event. "I used to live driving the Big Chuckwagons but they don't have those anymore (not since 1995). They were a lot of fun," Bell said.

Bell still keeps six horses on his hobby farm near St. Adolphe. "I used to have 32 but it's an expensive hobby and you don't make much money," he said.

His favourite horse these days is a black 10-year-old named Fighter because of his disposition.

"He's a handful to handle but he's a good horse," Bell said, with a chuckle. "He'll be in both (events at the stampede)."

While the sport has shrank in participation numbers, it has grown in safety in recent years.

"You drive different now in the last 25 years than you did before. In the first 25 years, the guys were a little careless and they were interfering with each other (on the track). Now that's sort of straightened out so everybody's not playing games out there," Bell said.

Bell has sustained a had a few injuries over the years, but nothing too serious. There was that one time he was run over when he was about 27 years old.

"My dad ran over me in Ontario with the chuckwagon. I dislocated my shoulder then. But it didn't really bother me," he said.

Lewis said a veteran driver such as Bell is a rare breed these days as fewer people are running horses in chariot events.

"Every now and again there's an influx but it's costly to go down the road. People don't want to spend the time and the money doing something some of these physical, outdoors things," Lewis said.

"These drivers have been training their horses since May and guys like Elgin, he'll make the trip here (to Morris) a couple times a week to get them (horses) on the track and train them here."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2014 A1

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