Last week a casual conversation about a small town in South Dakota morphed into a story about small-town races. The days of outhouse and lawnmower racing in Pukwana, South Dakota, led me to research my home town of Chamberlain’s horse racing history.
Before the advent of the automobile and tractor, horses were an invaluable part of rural life. It was only natural that they also became a form of entertainment.
In spite of all the various racing in Pukwana over the past several decades, I never found a genuine horse track in that town’s history. However, I did learn about the “bona fide horse race of the century,” South Dakota style. It pitted White Stockings from the Yankton Sioux Tribe against a Pukwana horse named Playmate.
White Stockings had a reputation as the fastest horse in the entire Dakota Territory. Legend has it that the Fort Thompson Sioux Tribe, located north of Pukwana, had recently returned from a pow-wow at Yankton. Unfortunately they returned empty-handed. Both tribes had just received a considerable amount of money from the government, allegedly over a land deal (or land steal, depending on your perspective). Anyhow, bets were flowing on horses willing to race White Stockings. The young lad (whose name I could not find) who rode White Stockings had never lost a race, including to the competition from Fort Thompson.
Eventually the Fort Thompson Tribe took the long trek back up to their homeland on the east bank of the Missouri River, with fewer funds than they had planned. However, they still fulfilled their duty to reciprocate with a pow-wow of their own. When Pukwana offered the Yankton Sioux a campsite along with a challenge to race against White Stockings, word spread. Soon, most of Fort Thompson was camping outside of Pukwana, and people swarmed in from Chamberlain, Kimball, and towns all over South Dakota. It became the largest event in Pukwana’s short history.
There were no Daily Doubles, Exactas, or Win, Place, or Show tickets to ride. There was only one race: White Stockings with the young teenage boy astride his back against John Andrews, a local horseman riding Playmate, a horse known for his strong finishes.
No trumpets blared at opening of the gates. Maybe Mint Juleps were poured, but more likely it was straight whiskey. What I do know is that there was no groomed oval dirt track surrounding a lush green inner circle. There were no debutants or Colonels making bets on Kentucky Derby Days. Rather, the track was a half-mile straightaway located on a lonely gravel road just south of Pukwana.
A lot of cold cash changed hands that day. I neglected to tell you that this took place in 1884, so naturally almost every white man that day was cheering for Playmate and, ironically, so was the tribe from Fort Thompson, still bemoaning their recent losses to the Yankton Sioux.
Did they wave a flag, fire a pistol or whack the horses in the rear to start the race? Legend says they simply hollered, “Go!”
“And they’re off! It’s White Stockings in the lead. The young Indian boy seems to have this race under control ... they are nearing the finish line, and Playmate is rapidly closing the gap! In the stretch, John Andrews moves ahead and rides the first horse ever to beat the legendary White Stockings!”
There were no hard feelings — no race riots broke out, only loads of excitement and fun. The Yankton Sioux went to Fort Thomson for a pow-wow, and people went home with a legendary story that has been re-told in 2013 with my version of the truth.