King of the Hill

Andres Beckett dreamed of competing in a punishing rodeo event known as the Suicide Race. But more difficult than charging down its dangerously steep track was earning a spot at the starting line.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 129

Jana Meisenholder is a journalist, writer, and investigative researcher whose work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, and Nylon. In 2021, she launched the publication Unearthed. She lives in Los Angeles.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Alex López
Photographer: Tailyr Irvine

Published in July 2022.

1. The Acceleration

On a Thursday night in August 2021, hundreds of people gathered along the banks of the Okanogan River in the small town of Omak, Washington. The air was thick with smoke from recent wildfires and shot through with tension. The crowd craned their necks to see the top of a nearby hill, which on one side plunged straight into the river. At the hill’s crest, illuminated by floodlights, more than a dozen men sat on horseback wearing helmets and life preservers. An ambulance was stationed below. Some spectators began to pray.

In Omak, the second week of August is synonymous with Stampede, an annual four-day rodeo featuring saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, and Native American drumming and dancing. Stampedes like the one in Omak are common across the American West, but the big draw here—the grand finale of each day’s festivities—is unlike anything else in the country. Riders like the ones atop the hill spur their horses to top speed, fly over the crest, and charge down a precipitously steep dirt track. After crashing into the Okanogan, they cross to the opposite bank and—if they make it that far without serious injury—dash 500 feet to the Stampede’s main arena. The thrilling, grueling spectacle is known as the Suicide Race.

The jockey with the best showing over four days earns the coveted title King of the Hill. There are men who have won once, twice, or several times, making them local celebrities. Omak sits on the edge of the Colville Indian Reservation, and the vast majority of riders are Native. Competing in the Suicide Race is a matter of pride: Many riders’ forefathers “went off the hill,” as locals say, and the event echoes Native traditions dating back centuries.

In 2021, most of the riders were repeat contenders or past winners, but one man was both an outsider and an underdog. Around Omak, which has a population of fewer than 5,000 people, Andres Beckett was known as “the rookie.” Twenty-nine years old and Mexican-American, Andres mostly worked construction. His forebears didn’t go off the hill, and he had to fight for years to get to the race’s starting line—a streak of white paint hastily sprayed onto the ground. Jockeys in the Suicide Race need skill and grit, but even more important is mentorship. The tight-knit community of legacy riders know the course in detail—how to train for it, survive it, master it—and they don’t share that expertise with just anyone. Wannabe racers have to prove themselves, earn the privilege of learning from the best.

Andres had done that, enduring setbacks and humiliations before securing the guidance required to compete. Now he waited impatiently for the starting gun to go off. Between his legs was the muscled mass of JD, his horse. Andres’s boots were taped into the stirrups of his saddle—falling off was not an option. He knew JD could sense his nerves; whenever he gripped the reins, the horse’s ears twitched. “Let’s have some fun, JD,” Andres said. “Let’s get it.” In his head he heard music, the eerie melody of a song by a Russian electronic band he’d listened to while preparing for the race. It made him feel close to death.


Fuck it, Andres thought.

He hollered at JD, and together they galloped for the edge.

Suicide Hill. Watch a bystander’s video from the 2021 race here.

Andres’s origin story is fraught, which is to say it’s quintessentially American. His maternal grandfather, Crecencio “Chencho” Ovalle, left his wife and children in Mexico in the 1980s to find better economic opportunities in the United States. Ovalle was caught trying to cross the border several times and sent back. When he finally made it through, he continued as far north as he could get, finding work picking fruit in the apple, berry, peach, and plum orchards around Omak, which is less than 50 miles from the Canadian border. Ovalle was one of only a few Mexican immigrants in the area. Soon he sent for his wife, and together they saved enough money to pay a coyote to smuggle their two daughters and the girls’ aunt into America.

One of those girls was Andres’s mother, Adela. She was 18 at the time. She gave birth to Andres almost exactly nine months after she arrived in Omak. Right from the start, he was different from the rest of the family. “My hair was blond, my eyes were blue,” Andres said. In the early 2000s, during a family trip to Denver, Andres threw food across the dinner table at his cousin and ignored the adults who told him to stop. His uncle George looked at the rambunctious ten-year-old and said, “You’re going to be crazy, just like your dad.”

Andres was confused. The man he believed was his father, José Muñiz, was reserved and disciplined. Muñiz had crossed from Mexico into the United States with his best friend, only to watch the friend be crushed to death as the two of them hid under train cars to evade Border Patrol agents. “I’m talking about your real dad,” George explained, “your white dad.”

Here was the truth: In the spring of 1991, a 23-year-old named Tony Beckett, who had spent a few years in the Navy, got on a Greyhound bus in Nashville that was bound for Seattle, where his mother lived. Adela, recently arrived in America, boarded the same bus—she was headed to Omak to reunite with her parents. Tony, who was athletic and had blond hair and blue eyes, asked if he could sit next to her. Adela didn’t speak English, and Tony didn’t speak Spanish, so they communicated through hand signals and smiles. In the several days it took to drive across the country, their romance blossomed. When they arrived in Seattle, Tony wrote his phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to Adela.

But she didn’t call him, not even when she learned she was pregnant. In fact, she told no one about the baby, wearing loose dresses and covering her stomach with pillows, fearful that her family would reject her if they knew. Only when her water broke did Adela finally share her secret. She asked José Muñiz’s sister-in-law, María, to drive her to the hospital. Andres would later credit this decision with the closeness he felt with his aunt María his whole life. “She watched me be born,” he said.

Adela’s family was baffled: Where had this baby come from? Who was the father? She finally contacted Tony when Andres was two months old, but made it clear she was in a relationship with Muñiz, who would raise Andres as his own. Still, Tony insisted on meeting his son. Uncle George, who later would let the truth slip to Andres, picked Tony up at the bus stop in Omak. 

During his visit, Tony made a deal with Adela: She could raise Andres until he was ten, then the boy would live with his father until he was ready for college. Adela, an undocumented immigrant at the time, felt like she had to agree. Back at the bus stop, Aunt María assured Tony, “I’ll look after Andres and make sure he grows up good.”

After Tony left, Adela panicked. She didn’t want to give up Andres—not ever. A relative suggested a place where she could raise her son and remain hidden if Tony ever came to take him: a secluded 35,000-acre property in the mountains owned by a man named Ben Whitley, who was looking to hire a ranch hand in exchange for lodgings. Muñiz became that ranch hand, and Whitley, who was in his fifties at the time, was like a grandfather to Andres. “He could tell that I was the outcast of the family, so he took me under his wing,” Andres said. “Every day I hung out with Ben.” It was Whitley who taught Andres how to drive a tractor and ride a four-wheeler, Whitley who showed him how to prepare steers for auction at the county fair.

Andres was a curious, active kid, with a fondness for unorthodox pets: a rattlesnake, scorpions, a nest of baby mice. “I either connected with the animal or I didn’t,” he said by way of explanation. Muñiz taught him how to shoot a gun when he was just a toddler. As he got older, Andres helped with tasks around the ranch, bucking hay bales, changing sprinklers, and assisting with the birthing of calves. Every year he and his family went to the Omak Stampede. He was mesmerized by the Suicide Race and the hero’s welcome the jockeys received from spectators. When the Stampede wasn’t happening, Andres and his friends took turns tumbling down the Suicide Race’s legendary track. But his first love was bull riding: men holding on for dear life to massive, undulating beasts, and somehow making it look elegant. He wanted to be just like them.

One day at a local coffee shop, Whitley asked his friend Larry Peasley, a Colville tribal elder known for his work at rodeos, to teach Andres how to ride. They used a mechanical bull and started out slow, going over the fundamentals, working on body positions. “He was a quick learner,” Peasley said. Andres’s best friend, Jerid Peterson, came over to Peasley’s ranch to practice with him. “Sometimes we pretended to be world champions,” Andres recalled.

Peasley saw natural ability in Andres. “He was doing well,” Peasley said, “and then I don’t know…” He trailed off.

“One of the opportunities I pissed away,” Andres chimed in. There was a tinge of guilt in his voice.

Andres with Indra Renteria and his horse, JD.

2. The Drop

When Andres learned about his biological father, it brought on an identity crisis. Sometimes he wondered if he was the progeny of a bad man from a bad family. In other moments he considered what life would have been like had he grown up with his dad. Destitution is a reality for many people in Omak, where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Andres’s mother and stepfather struggled to make ends meet; sometimes all they had to eat was deer that Muñiz had shot himself. “That was our grocery store right there,” Andres said. When he thought about a childhood in Seattle with Tony’s family, he imagined wanting for nothing. “What if they’re just really good people, and I could have a good, normal, white-people life?” he said.

Andres got angry when he learned that his mother was throwing away child support checks Tony sent to Omak. Why was the family eking out an existence when there was money right there to be deposited? “I don’t need anything from him to raise you,” Adela said. Tony had never demanded that Adela make good on the deal they’d struck when Andres was a baby. Still, she worried he might.

In 2009, Andres’s sophomore year of high school, his mother and stepfather announced that the family—which by then included Andres’s three younger siblings—would be moving to Wenatchee, a town two hours from Omak and about six times the size. Right before they left, Andres was hanging out with his friends, saying goodbye, when he spotted a dark-haired girl in volleyball gear getting out of a car. Her name was Indra Renteria. He approached her and they exchanged numbers. She was also the child of first-generation Mexican immigrants. Andres was smitten.

He left with his family, but he didn’t last long in Wenatchee. A year later, he moved back to Omak by himself, to be closer to his friends and to the girl he now loved. (Renteria wasn’t allowed to date in high school, so she had to sneak out of the house to see Andres.) His mother and stepfather were so furious they cut off contact for a while. At 17, Andres was responsible for paying his own bills, plus monthly rent to the extended family he was staying with in a dilapidated mobile home. Despite their circumstances, Andres noticed that his hosts never seemed to worry about finances the way his parents did. “Money wasn’t an issue,” Andres said. “They would eat really good. I knew something was up. They wouldn’t tell me what it was until later on, when they saw they could trust me.”

Their secret source of income was drugs, namely cocaine and methamphetamine. One day they tasked Andres with driving up north to meet a guy who they said would give him a bag. Andres was instructed to bring it back, and was paid in cash for his efforts. After several of these trips, his relatives began teaching him more of the business: how to weigh out the drugs in twenties, grams, eight balls, halves, and by the ounce. Before long he was dealing.

His popularity at Omak High School skyrocketed, especially among the juniors and seniors who, as enrolled members of Native tribes, had each received a lump-sum payment on their eighteenth birthday. (Known as “18 money,” these payouts from trust accounts are common in Native communities.) Andres started wearing Nike Air Force shoes and other expensive clothing. “I was constantly rolling up with a fresh hat and shit people would trade me for drugs sometimes. I had a chain and a little ring,” he said.

In the fall of 2010, there was a drug bust in a nearby town, and local suppliers got spooked. Andres was instructed by a family member to hide duffel bags filled with pistols, assault rifles, and shotguns. Then they rushed together to the storage units where the family kept their drug supply. They grabbed everything they could, along with a few bottles of bleach and a knife. Back home, Andres cut open the pink and white bricks and flushed their contents down the toilet. He didn’t want to get caught, didn’t want to go to prison.

Before 7 a.m. the next day, the authorities turned up and banged loudly on the door. They arrested one of the relatives Andres was working for, cuffing and detaining him on the front lawn just as a school bus full of kids pulled up to the house. The police didn’t have anything on Andres, so they let him board the bus like it was any other day.

After the raid, word got around that Andres was no longer dealing, and his life came crashing down. His popularity evaporated. He wasn’t making money. “I didn’t even have enough to invest in an ounce of weed I could turn around and flip. I was so broke,” Andres said. “This is when I found out who my friends really were.” Renteria stuck by him, as did his childhood buddy Jerid Peterson. Still, he fell into a deep depression.

When he found someone willing to front him an ounce of cocaine, he jumped at the chance. But the remaining family members he was living with were trying to rebuild their lives after the bust, and they kicked him out. His aunt María, the one who was in the delivery room when he was born, and her husband, Ramón, agreed to take Andres in. They lived in a small, run-down house in Eastside, a neighborhood a mile south of Omak’s Stampede grounds. Andres rented a storage shed from them, where he slept and dealt drugs—without his aunt and uncle knowing. Andres described María and Ramón as “really good, innocent, humble people that the whole town knew and liked.” He didn’t want to hurt them.

Gang violence had increased in recent years on the Colville Reservation, which poverty, limited law enforcement, and jurisdictional challenges made an easy target for criminal enterprises. “By far the highest incidence of known gang activity occurs in the Omak district,” Brian Nissen, a member of the Colville Tribal Council, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2009. Some of the gangs were Native; others were Hispanic. “Much of the violence associated with gang activity on the Colville Reservation appears to be focused on recruitment of new members and the gangs’ defense of their prospective territory,” Nissen said. “These territories are important to the gangs in part due to drug distribution.”

Andres saw firsthand what gangs were like—not because he was affiliated with one, but because he sold them drugs. His operation had middlemen and regular customers in the Native Gangster Bloods (NGB). In retrospect he described the group as “a bunch of sketchy motherfuckers,” and said he believed that one of them, whose father also happened to be a cop on the reservation, broke into his shed. “Stole my coke, stole all my cash, stole all my jewelry, anything that I had that was worth anything he stole,” Andres said.

After that he was back to zero, and he still owed money for the ounce he’d been fronted. He started looking for legitimate work and approached Dan Yaksic, the co-owner of a local glass repair business. With his first paycheck, Andres paid off his debt. With his second and third, he invested in more drugs. Once word spread about Andres’s new workplace, he began dealing out of the shop behind Yaksic’s back.

Members of the NGB broke into Andres’s shed again, this time with guns and pit bulls. They also followed his aunt María around. In response Andres bought an AR-15 rifle. He also begged Yaksic to front him cash, but instead his employer sat him down for a talk. “I know what you are. I can tell what kind of shit you do,” Yaksic said. He warned Andres to avoid doing anything drastic, because it would end one of two ways: He’d either die or go to prison. “Let all that go,” Yaksic said, referring to Andres’s life as a dealer.

Andres didn’t listen to Yaksic’s advice, at least not right away. He was offered an opportunity to move $25,000 of cocaine into Canada, a windfall. He planned on trekking over the border on a mountain trail, wearing a camouflage outfit and carrying the brick of coke in a backpack. But Andres couldn’t shake what he called a “bad feeling.” Ultimately, he let someone else take the job. He later heard that the person who’d replaced him was murdered. After that, Andres decided to leave drug dealing behind for good.

But that wasn’t the end of his troubles. Around the same time, he met his biological father for the first time and learned that Tony had schizophrenia. Because the condition tends to run in families, Andres began to worry he might develop it, too. Then, in 2014, Aunt María fell into a coma after developing an infection while recovering from open-heart surgery. Andres slept on the couch in her hospital room every night. One day he noticed his aunt’s feet were changing colors. María had gangrene, which required a double amputation. Eventually she died from post-surgery complications.

Andres considered filing a malpractice lawsuit with the help of a local attorney whose lawn he had mowed for pocket money as a kid. But Andres didn’t follow through. Instead he daydreamed of confronting the doctor who had operated on his beloved aunt, following him home from the hospital and gunning him down. Andres went as far as to wait outside the doctor’s office one day, pulling on a bottle of Maker’s Mark behind the wheel of Aunt María’s old car. But when the doctor drove off after work, Andres didn’t move. “I broke down crying like a fucking kid,” he said. “I realized I couldn’t do that.”

What followed was “a dark, dark stage,” Andres said—“a year or two where I didn’t care about anybody, I didn’t care about nothing.” It was bookended by yet another tragedy. In August 2016, right around Stampede time, Jerid Peterson was killed in an accident while apprenticing as an electrical lineman. He had just turned 23. Renteria attended Peterson’s funeral with Andres, and afterward she noticed a change in her boyfriend. “He just wants to do everything and anything, and that definitely picked up,” she said. “I think Andres feels like he has to live his life like it’s going to end tomorrow.”

With his best friend gone, an idle dream Andres sometimes indulged in as a kid started to coalesce into a plan. Peterson had shared the same fantasy. “We always promised each other that we’d do the Suicide Race together,” Andres said. Maybe now he could run it for them both.

Andres wears his favorite belt buckle, equipped with a bottle opener.

Before the arrival of European colonizers, the Columbia Plateau, which forms swaths of present-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, was home to several Native tribes, including the Nez Perce, Wenatchi, Palus, and Colville. Foreigners brought with them disease and destruction. They also brought horses. “It was probably the best gift the white man ever gave us,” the late Stampede organizer and horse trainer Eddie Timentwa told author Carol Austin, who wrote a book about the Suicide Race in 1993,

By the 1700s, horsemanship had become an integral part of Native culture. The animals assisted in transportation and territorial expansion. “Mounted war parties could strike enemies at greater distances and with greater force than ever before,” writes anthropologist Deward Walker. Horses also led to larger traditional gatherings, allowing more people from a wider geographical range to come together. During salmon-spawning season, plateau tribes would meet at the confluence of the Sanpoil and Columbia Rivers to harvest and dry the coming winter’s supply of fish. Horses served as entertainment and objects of sporting competition. Riders paraded horses adorned with tribal regalia and beaded stirrups and bridles before running perilous mountain races.

After the plateau tribes were forced onto the Colville Reservation, the tradition of horse racing continued, and people wagered on riders. Stories of these events were most often passed down through oral tradition, but in 1879, Erskine Wood, a U.S. military officer, wrote of one horse race, “It did not take long for the excitement to grow and soon the bets were showering down and the pile swelling visibly with such great rapidity that it was marvelous how account could be kept. Blankets, furs, saddles, knives, traps, tobacco, beads, whips, and a hundred other things were staked.” (Wood wrote positively of many of his encounters with Native tribes, but also participated in the violent removal of the Nez Perce from their ancestral land.)

In the 1920s, Hugh McShane, a white man married to a Colville woman, introduced a mountain race at the rodeo in Keller, Washington. The race, described by Austin as “a half mile, pell-mell down a nearly vertical, boulder-strewn chasm in the face of a mountain,” quickly became a crowd favorite. But it wouldn’t last: The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s flooded Keller, forcing residents to relocate. In Omak, about 60 miles northwest, Claire Pentz, a furniture salesman in charge of publicity for the town’s rodeo, heard about McShane’s event and decided to stage one of his own. Locals brainstormed what to call the starting location, a precipitous incline on the Okanogan’s southern bank. Murder Hill was floated, but organizers settled on Suicide Hill. “The suicide race draws only the most nervy riders,” The Omak Chronicle declared.

In 1942, a jockey named Bev Conners drowned in the river during the race. Since then, according to various sources, no other jockeys have died. But injuries are common, including grievous ones. Larry Peasley, who taught Andres how to ride a mechanical bull, has two adult children who were nearly killed in the race. In 2002, his daughter Naomie—one of only a few women to ever run the race—suffered a skull fracture and flatlined on the way to the hospital. Doctors were able to revive her. A few years later, Peasley’s son Tyler went somersaulting off his horse and was trampled by oncoming riders. He fractured his ribs and suffered a broken pelvis and hip.

It’s not hard to see what makes the race so dangerous. There’s the hill itself, more than 200 feet of earth pitched at a harrowing angle—according to one race organizer’s measurement, it’s steeper than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Riders charge down the slope at full gallop, reaching speeds up to 30 miles per hour by the time they hit the river. Then there’s the lack of any hard-and-fast rules about how the race should be run. Horses aren’t lined up in an orderly fashion at the starting line. What happens on Suicide Hill is a free-for-all, with mounted jockeys jostling each other, fighting for a competitive spot. The aggression only escalates during the race. Riders violently whipping other jockeys in the face with their crops, attempting to throw them off balance or slow them down, is a common tactic, and often a successful one.

The best Suicide Race jockeys are adrenaline junkies, as athletic as they are knowledgeable of the event’s 1,260-foot-long course. They’ve meticulously mapped out the quarter-mile and know what to do when: Lean back before this point, lock your knees here, sit forward just after that section, pull back the reins there. Riders have incredible core and leg strength to help them stay in the saddle, and they know how far their bodies can tilt sideways if need be, to avoid injury or inflict it on a competitor.

In 2002, the race’s all-time reigning champ, Alex Dick, passed away at the age of 83. He had 16 King of the Hill titles to his name; his obituary in a local newspaper noted that Dick, who was Native, “set a record that will probably never be broken.” So far it hasn’t been. Yet if there’s a first family of the Suicide Race today, it’s the Marchands. Three brothers—Loren, Francis, and Edward—have followed in the footsteps of their grandfather, Jim, an endurance racer who died after a horse fell on him in 1990, and an uncle, George, who holds three Suicide Race titles. Loren, now 34, has been crowned King of the Hill seven times, most recently in 2015. Francis and Edward have never won the overall title, but they’ve come close.

As the dominant force in the Suicide Race, the Marchand brothers have a wealth of tips and tricks, and they know all the best places around Omak to practice. But the race is a tradition most often shared among kin, and the Marchands are notoriously wary of letting people who aren’t blood, or at least Native, into their inner circle. They also reject weekend warriors and wannabe jockeys who are in it purely for the exhilaration. “The Marchands don’t fuck with anybody,” said Conner Picking, a Suicide Race jockey and a great-grandson of one of the founders of the Omak Stampede.

That didn’t stop Andres from trying to get their attention.

 Andres and JD prepare for a training session.

3. The Scramble

By the summer of 2018, Andres, now 26, had cleaned up his life and was working construction and picking up jobs as a handyman. He was also holding fast to his desire to learn from Suicide Race royalty, looking for a way in to their good graces. One day he accompanied a welder to a small ranch in Eastside owned by Preston Boyd, a Colville elder renowned for breeding and training thoroughbreds for flat-track racing. Boyd needed the men to fix his broken horse walker, a motorized machine that leads horses in a circle. While Andres worked, Boyd took a good look at him. He noticed Andres’s height—just five feet six inches. He probed the young man about his weight.

Boyd was searching for a new rider to exercise his racehorses, because his usual guys were getting too busy. Among them was his great-nephew, Francis Marchand. Francis was helping Boyd break some new horses that summer, but his schedule was increasingly packed with rodeos—a formidable horseman, Francis regularly competed in saddle bronc and bareback riding. Andres’s specs were promising for the kind of rider Boyd needed. Sure, he couldn’t gallop a horse yet, but he could learn. Boyd told Andres he might fit the bill.

Andres knew he was being given a rare opportunity—a chance to get to know Boyd and one of the Marchands, and to show that he had what it took to run the Suicide Race. But months went by and nothing happened. Boyd never followed up with Andres about exercising his horses.

Omak is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody, and sometimes Andres bumped into Francis at social gatherings. He would bring up Boyd’s suggestion that he was rider material as casually as he could, to see if Francis knew anything about his great-uncle’s plans. Andres also asked about going off the hill—what it felt like, what it took to win. Francis recognized Andres’s ambition, and in early 2019 he told him to stop dithering and get to the point: If he wanted to become a rider, he should go to Boyd and say so. “You want to do this? Look him in the eyes,” Francis said. “In any culture, you grab a guy, shake his hand, and tell him you want this.”

Andres took the advice to heart, but he didn’t want to seem desperate. He waited until he ran into Boyd at a gas station one day, then asked if he could help exercise his horses. Boyd said sure, and Andres showed up at 7:30 the next morning to start learning.

Unlike bull riding, which Andres took to easily as a boy, riding racehorses was challenging. Though short, he was stocky and muscular; working construction had made him strong, but he wasn’t nimble or quick to respond to a horse’s stride. Montana Pakootas, a seasoned jockey who helped out on the ranch, had to constantly remind Andres not to yank the reins, but to pull them gently, if he wanted to slow a horse down. “Use your wrist, not your whole arm,” Pakootas said. Otherwise, when a horse was going full speed, Andres risked throwing it off balance.

Andres’s riding improved, and by the summer of 2019 he was exercising Boyd’s newest racehorses for several hours most days of the week. Boyd expected his riders to stick to a routine, for the horses’ sake. “I take Wednesdays and Sundays off to let their muscles, if they get sore, to give them a little rest,” he said. On training days, it was Andres’s job to guide horses to a trot around a local track for a quarter of a mile, getting their blood pumping and helping them build stamina. Eventually he would get them up to a gallop. As a horse became more aerobic, Andres learned to increase its speed against its pulse, maintaining a low heart rate even while the horse worked hard over varying distances. After weeks or months of training, when a horse was comfortable running at top speed around the track in Omak, Andres took the horse to Emerald Downs, a race facility in Seattle, not to compete but to get acquainted with crowds and the whirring sound the starting gates make when they open.

Andres exercised Boyd’s horses for free, and he and Renteria, who was selling Amway products at the time, sometimes struggled to cover the bills. Andres picked up odd jobs where he could, but not anything that took away from his time with Boyd’s horses. The Suicide Race was never far from his mind. He watched videos of past races over and over, studying them. “He’d always say, ‘I hope I go down the hill one day,’ but I never thought he would actually be in it,” Renteria said. Sometimes Andres was surprised he still had a girlfriend at all. “He told me that he thought I’d break up with him since all he did was ride,” Renteria said, smiling.

One day, when Andres had been working with Montana Pakootas for a while, he decided to tell him about his ultimate goal. Pakootas, who had run many Suicide Races and was crowned King of the Hill in 2004, was hosing down a horse at the time. In response to what Andres said, he turned and sprayed him in the face. That’s how the hazing began. Another time Pakootas dumped a boot full of water on Andres’s head. “You scared of getting wet? Because that water fucking feels like it just whips you in the face,” he said, referring to the dive into the Okanogan River. Andres was humiliated, but he kept showing up, kept taking shit.

When Boyd asked him to come along to Emerald Downs for an official racing event, Andres jumped at the chance. At the Downs, Andres awoke every morning at 4:45 to feed the racehorses, then got them ready for the day’s competitions. Francis Marchand and his brother Edward were there, helping care for Boyd’s horses, and they picked up Andres’s hazing where Pakootas had left off. “Edward wasn’t easy on me, that’s for sure,” Andres said. The eldest Marchand brother, known for his success in the extreme sport of Indian relay racing, in which a rider changes his mount mid-competition, seemed to notice every mistake Andres made while warming up the horses. “It’s almost like he waited for me to fuck up,” Andres said, “just so he could go off on me and drive me away.”

Andres persevered, and over margaritas at an Applebee’s one day, he felt bold enough to say it to Edward straight—what he wanted, what he was sure he was capable of. What did he need to do to go off the hill? Edward, who had placed second overall in the 2018 Suicide Race, shook his head in response.

“You don’t have what it takes,” he said.

“What’s it take?” Andres asked.

“It doesn’t matter. You don’t got it.”

Andres has a generally calm disposition, and he looks younger than his years, almost childlike. He is always clean-shaven. Most days he wears a purple trucker hat and a belt with a bottle opener on the buckle. He almost always has a piece of green or blue chewing gum in his mouth. But his comportment and appearance belie a rash streak, a tendency toward recklessness.

Like the time he yanked on the wheel of his car and did a U-turn in traffic to come alongside a disheveled man he saw walking at the side of the road, with a small, scruffy dog trailing behind him. Andres pulled up to the man, jumped out of the car, and got in the stranger’s face, reprimanding him for letting the dog wander so close to traffic without a leash. It turned out the dog didn’t belong to the man, so Andres grabbed it. “Fuck, man. That heated me up,” he said. “The fact that he was just gonna let it get hit.”

Andres drove to Renteria’s sister’s house and left the dog there—never mind that she wasn’t home at the time. He took a shot of apple-pie-flavored moonshine, got back in the car, and ignored Renteria’s sister’s phone calls until the next day. When they connected, he explained what had happened; eventually the dog was reunited with its owner.

The thing about Andres’s impulses is that they’re almost always in service of what in his mind is the right thing to do. “He does have some trauma, obviously, but he has the kindest heart,” Renteria explained. “He really does.” Maybe that’s why Andres didn’t lash out at Pakootas whenever he was hazed, or at the Marchand brothers when they rejected him. But just as important as Andres’s hard-won goodness and maturity are the adults in his life—parental figures who have helped ground him. When asked why people seem so keen to nurture him, Andres replied, “Because I do right things while doing wrong things.”

Preston Boyd is high on the list of people Andres credits with giving him a leg up, and more. Though approaching 70, Boyd can toss a hay bale over a fence and carry a bag of horse feed slung over his shoulder with the ease of a younger man. When he isn’t working on the ranch, he’s watching the news, college basketball games, or televised flat-track races, always with a pen and a notebook in hand. He wears glasses he peers over when talking, and he smokes Marlboro Reds. The fourth of 12 siblings, Boyd never had kids of his own, but armed with master’s degrees in education and social work, he worked for many years as the program manager of Children and Family Services on the Colville Reservation, helping place kids in foster care. After the Marchand brothers’ mom died unexpectedly when they were young, Boyd took in Edward, who was then a wayward 16-year-old. Nearly two decades later, the two men still have dinner together every night. Edward’s four children with his partner, Carmella, are Boyd’s surrogate grandkids.

Once Andres was exercising his horses, Boyd took him under his wing, too. They started meeting for breakfast regularly at a restaurant called Appaloosa, where Boyd knew Andres loved the homemade raspberry jam. Andres took to affectionately calling Boyd “P-Word.” Sometimes when Andres shot a deer, he brought the tenderest, most coveted cuts of meat to Boyd’s home and left them in the freezer.

Renteria could see what the blossoming relationship meant to her boyfriend. “I like Preston because he has a lot to teach—to be a hard worker, be on time,” she said. “I feel like he sees something in Andres, or he just feels something for Andres.” Boyd encouraged Andres to become a better horseman and find his way into the Suicide Race, even when hurdles appeared in his path, ones that went well beyond the struggle to secure a mentor. Andres had hoped to finally persuade someone to train him for the event in 2020, but then it was canceled, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, for just the third time in its history. That November, Andres’s uncle Ramón succumbed to the virus. Faced with yet another devastating personal loss, Andres mourned, but he also continued riding. He kept his eyes trained on the hill.

The following May, almost two years after Andres’s conversation with Edward Marchand at Applebee’s, a racehorse named Tiz that Andres had bought and trained himself won a flat-track race at Emerald Downs. With that accomplishment under his belt, Andres decided it was as good a time as any to make another play for the Suicide Race, which organizers had recently announced would return that August. This time he managed to do it with all three Marchand brothers present, including Loren, the ultimate King of the Hill. He wanted to know if one of them would train him.

Loren laughed and asked if Andres had ever been on a horse. Then he leaned in, bringing his face close to Andres’s. “I’m talking about a real horse,” Loren growled, “not just a fucking tame racehorse.”

Loren instructed Andres and his brothers to jump into his truck. He drove them all to Boyd’s ranch, where Loren was stabling his own Suicide Race mount, Augustus, a beefy animal. The horse had only a halter around his head—no reins, no saddle—but Andres jumped on the horse’s back without a second thought. Augustus immediately began spinning. When Andres started to slide off one side, Loren reached over and grabbed his other foot, twisting and stretching his ankle until it hurt like hell. “Let go! Let go!” Andres begged him. Loren did, and Andres dropped to the ground.

“Fuck, let me on him again!” Andres yelled.

He mounted Augustus once more, and the horse panicked tenfold. He started running, then tried to turn, but his hooves slid and he fell forward onto the ground. Andres didn’t let go, absorbing the tremendous shock of the landing through the animal’s neck and chest. The Marchand brothers sprinted over and caught the horse before he—or Andres—got seriously hurt. Once they’d calmed Augustus down, everyone took a moment to catch their breath.

“Fuck, that felt good,” Andres said. He told the Marchands he could feel Augustus’s heartbeat between his thighs.

“That was the first time anybody rode him bareback,” Loren said.

A few weeks later Francis finally agreed to train Andres for the Suicide Race. Most riders prepare for at least a year before the event. Andres would have only the summer. What he was attempting would be difficult, Francis warned. “You can’t just show up and ride, you know?” he said.

Andres knew. He also knew he needed to find the right horse—his own horse.

Andres rides JD.

4. The Stretch

Some Suicide Race horses are caught in the wild on the Colville Reservation. Others are rescued from slaughter. Still others are purchased from reputable breeders. What riders look for is a rare combination of traits: responsiveness, sure-footedness, strength, and bravery. After all, the horse has to be willing to charge off a cliff again and again. “A suicide horse is a study in diversity,” Carol Austin writes in her book. “It walks calmly through bustling crowds of onlookers and weaves through vehicles like a police horse. It gallops into the rodeo arena before thousands of screaming fans, a seasoned performer. It waits patiently for more than an hour on top of Suicide Hill while loudspeakers blare.… It possesses the speed of a racehorse, the courage of a charging cavalry mount, and the savvy of a wild mustang.”

Horses can sustain injury or, worse, die as a result of the Suicide Race, a fact that draws scrutiny from animal rights organizations, some of which have attempted to shut the event down for good. According to the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, a Washington nonprofit, “Since 1983, at least 22 horse deaths have been documented. In 2004, three horses were killed in the first heat alone.” PAWS lists “heart attacks from overexertion, broken bones from shocking collisions and tumbles, and even horrifying death by drowning” as a few of the race’s many offenses. The event has been the target of protests, angry editorials, and even bomb threats. “If you go on any video on YouTube and you start reading the comments, it’s nothing but hate,” Andres said.

Race supporters maintain that riders love their horses, bond with them, and become so attuned to their movements that man and animal practically move as one. To ride in, or better still win, the Suicide Race is to hearken back to a time when horses carried Native Americans to other kinds of triumph. Eddie Timentwa, the late race organizer, once described the event as “symbolic of the warrior that rides first into battle and receives recognition from the tribe and the elders.”

Once a horse can no longer run the race, often after several years of competition, it receives a dignified retirement. It’s released into the nearby mountains to run free, resold as a working ranch horse, or allowed to live a life of leisure in a pasture. A horse’s premature death is always a tragedy. After Coors Boy, a veteran rider’s horse, was killed during the Suicide Race, a public memorial service was held, and people from all around Omak paid their respects. Some riders bury their horses in their own backyards.

Andres didn’t have much time before the 2021 race to find his horse. Nor did he have much money to pay it. (Typically, a jockey either owns their horse or runs one owned by a trainer in the area.) But the Marchands had an idea: A few years prior, Loren had been given a chestnut-colored quarter horse, so called because the breed is fast over short distances. Francis had noticed the horse’s spunky personality and had plans to use him in ranch work. “He ain’t going to get tired on me,” Francis said. The horse wasn’t broken to ride, and he didn’t have a name. One night, after hours of drinking and chasing wild horses on the reservation—tribal authorities offer a bounty per horse caught—Loren proposed a bet: If Francis could ride the horse bareback, he could have him. Francis did it, and the brothers named the horse Drunk Deal, soon shortened to JD. (The letter j, they agreed, sounded like the d in “drunk.”)

Francis sold JD to Andres for cheap. When he first met the horse, Andres was shocked by how skittish he was. “He was wild as shit and would kick at us,” Andres said. Every day, he would approach JD inch by inch, letting the animal know he wasn’t a threat. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. “He was so crazy, we couldn’t even get shoes on him,” Francis said. Eventually JD got used to Andres, who would grab the horse by the head and baby-talk to him, assuring the animal that everything was OK. Before long Andres was riding JD. “It was green on green,” Boyd said. “The horse and him were both going through a new experience.”

There are four distinct stages of the Suicide Race, starting with the acceleration at the top of the hill, across a 150-foot flat. That’s followed by the drop—a moment of weightlessness after which horse and rider descend the steep dirt track to the river. Then comes the scramble, the effort to get across the river—a sandy-bottomed incline littered with rocks—and onto the opposite bank. Finally there’s the stretch, during which a horse must sustain a full gallop beyond the length of a football field. Each stage requires a different training method.

Francis had Andres start by running JD on the rugged land behind his house seven days a week. They practiced galloping at full speed on flat land and on slopes, both during the day and at night—the first three runs of the Suicide Race take place after the sun has set, which means both horse and rider need to be accustomed to running in the dark. Sometimes Francis glimpsed Andres atop JD on his property after midnight, silhouetted against the mountain range in the distance. Francis sent video of the training sessions to Loren, who offered feedback about how Andres was holding his reins, sitting in the saddle, or wielding his crop.

Once JD was comfortable on land, Andres introduced the horse to water. First he sprayed JD in the face with a hose, just like Montana Pakootas had once done to him. Then he took the horse to Omak Lake with the Marchands to practice. The first time Andres and JD hit the water together at full speed, the horse reared his entire body back and his head smacked Andres in the face so hard he got a black eye. But in time JD got used to the water, and the sensation of running through it.

One day as August approached, Andres had breakfast with Boyd and Larry Peasley. Andres took the opportunity to apologize for taking Peasley’s training and guidance when he was a boy for granted: “I let you down because I fucking gave it up.” Peasley told him not to worry about it. “We all do that at one point or another,” he said. When Andres said he was planning to go off the hill, Peasley started showing up to practice sessions to give advice.

Andres took to putting his chest against JD’s every day when they were alone in the stable. “We’re going to fucking do this,” Andres said. He felt JD’s muscles tense in response. By early August, they were ready to go through the steps of qualifying for the race. Elimination runs are held on Suicide Hill and usually draw a small crowd of onlookers. If a horse accelerates toward the drop and balks, it’s immediately disqualified. There is also a veterinary check, to determine if the horse is in good condition, and a swimming test in the river. Andres and JD met all the criteria.

When the race lineup was announced, Andres was hanging out with Edward Marchand at the horse barn on Boyd’s property. Edward hugged Andres and told him he was proud. “Let me hear your war whoop,” he said. Andres, feeling shy, let out a small cry.

Edward slapped his back. “Come on, really fucking do it!” Andres tried again, louder.

“Fuck that—this is how you do it,” Edward said. The man who once told Andres that he didn’t have what it took threw his head back and let out a long, deafening wail. To Andres it sounded like acceptance.

Andres, Francis, and Gizmo the dog corral JD to put new horseshoes on him.

The Omak Stampede is cacophonous. There are screaming teenagers strapped into carnival rides and deep fryers sizzling with french fries and corn dogs. Enthusiastic voice-over announcements compete with Top 40 country played at full volume. The cheering at rodeo events is a dense, steady roar, while at the Native encampment the pounding of drums provides a rhythmic pulse for traditional dancers.

The Marchands took Andres away from all the noise the morning before the first run of the Suicide Race. They drove deep into the Colville Reservation, to a sweat lodge in the mountainous Desautel Pass. There the brothers let Andres join their private prerace tradition, a smudging ceremony in which they burn sage. The rite is intended to purify the spirit and proffer good luck.

Back in Omak, Jerid Peterson’s uncle handed Andres a necklace strung with a single AK-47 bullet casing holding some of Jerid’s ashes. “I felt safer knowing Jerid was with me,” Andres said. He also wore his uncle Ramón’s pants, his aunt María’s wedding ring, his favorite hat, and black cowboy boots Renteria had bought for him. Edward immediately cut holes in the boots with a knife so they wouldn’t fill up with water.

During race betting, which happens four hours before the starting gun, at least one person put money on Andres after they found out that the Marchands were in his corner. Just after sunset, all 22 Suicide Race jockeys entered the main Stampede arena on their horses and jogged around in a circle as an announcer called out their names one by one. An AC/DC song pumped through giant speakers, and the crowd screamed and stomped their feet. Andres could tell JD was nervous. “He was flaring his nostrils. I could start to feel it myself,” Andres said.

At the trailers where riders dress for the race, Andres scrambled to put on all his gear. Life jacket, gloves, helmet. Wait—his whip. Where was his whip? Then he remembered that JD’s legs hadn’t been wrapped, which is important to protect a horse from injury. Andres grabbed a pair of scissors. But where was the tape? Edward ran over to help him. “He had my back big time,” Andres said.

When Andres joined the other riders to prepare to go up Suicide Hill, he didn’t talk to anyone. Instead, he watched carefully to make sure no one messed with JD—some jockeys were known to loosen competitors’ saddles or commit other forms of sabotage. Andres also attended to his feet. Loren had told him to use thick rubber bands to keep them in the stirrups, but Andres decided on Gorilla Tape. He wrapped three layers around his boots. “When I go down that hill, I’m ready to die with JD,” he said.

The jockeys were escorted to the hill by police. As they approached the starting line, they all went silent. “I looked around and could see the looks on some of the cowboys’ faces,” Andres said. “You could tell they were scared.” He had heard that the first night’s run was always the worst.

Andres’s family was in the crowd to support him—even his mom and stepfather, who had moved to Nashville several years prior, had come out to see him race. Larry Peasley was filling his usual duties as one of the race’s outriders, which meant that he would be waiting at the bottom of the hill to help if anything went wrong during the most dramatic part of the event. On top of Suicide Hill, Andres lined up next to Montana Pakootas, who wore an eagle feather in his helmet for protection. Loren Marchand was at the other end of the starting line. Andres was glad some of his mentors were there, even as his competition.

In the distance, Andres heard the drum circle at the Stampede’s Native encampment—the sound would go all night. “Before the race,” Carol Austin writes in her book, “the riders share a feeling that they are related, and in fact many are brothers, cousins, nephews, fathers, and sons. But as soon as that pistol pops it will be every man for himself.” Andres remembered what Francis taught him: Think what your horse thinks. “We got this,” he whispered to JD.

The gun went off. Jockeys immediately started whipping each other. Andres yelled as loud as he could, an exhalation of fear as much as a command to his horse. It was just him and JD now, against the world. They galloped across the flat—it was pitch-black ahead. “It was like dark, dark, dark, then drop,” Andres later said.

Andres and JD flew over the edge, and for an instant they hung in the air. Andres felt his guts go up into his chest, as if he were on a rollercoaster. His lungs froze. “I couldn’t breathe for a second,” he recalled.

When they landed on the slope, JD kept his balance. Dust clouds exploded around them as one by one the riders made the treacherous descent. Andres saw a horse’s hooves in the air and a rider wreck in front of him. But there wasn’t time to assess what was happening, who was up and who was down. He and JD just kept hurtling down the hill.

GoPro video of Andres and JD’s trip down the hill.

The river hit violently, as Pakootas told Andres it would. Sharp rocks under the water’s black surface sliced open one of JD’s front legs. Andres held on to the reins. “Head up, JD! Head up!” he screamed. But instead he felt the horse going down, and himself going down, too, pulled by the tape keeping him in the stirrups.

Thousands of pounds piled on top of Andres and JD as jockeys who’d been behind them on the hill crashed into the river. Water was in Andres’s mouth, then his lungs. I’m going to die right here, he thought. Instinctively, he protected the back of his neck with his hand.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. Other riders and horses swam by and made it onto the far shore. Andres and JD had survived, but they couldn’t race—both were injured. They finished the race, straggling across the finish line, but there would be no more runs that year.

“I never wanted something so bad before,” Andres said. “We trained all fucking summer. We did all this to just fucking have it end tonight.”

Andres with Francis’s horse Frank Cartel.

5. The Reprisal

On the Colville Reservation, there is a formation known as the Omak Rock—a huge boulder, estimated to weigh some 40 tons, that appears to balance precariously atop a much smaller rock. It has stayed in this position through numerous natural disasters, including the 1872 North Cascades earthquake. The boulder is the thing people talk about, what tourists come to see, but without the smaller rock the formation would be just another chunk of granite.

Andres knows that both he and his ambitions would be nothing special without the people who hold him up: the Marchands, Pakootas, Peasley, Boyd, Renteria. After he washed out of the Suicide Race, his circle of support gathered to dissect what went wrong, and to think ahead to next year. Andres would heal; JD would, too. There would be another Suicide Race to run.

In early 2022, with several feet of snow on the ground, the Marchands invited Andres to bring JD and go horse chasing with them on the reservation. It would be good training, they told him, since it would help improve JD’s stamina and confidence in the wild. Plus, being part of a pack would hone his competitiveness. But JD lost his footing in the powder and ended up reopening his leg wound. Andres feared this meant he couldn’t go off the hill again come August, that he’d have to wait another year for a second shot at making a name for himself.

Francis had a solution. He said he would help Andres train and ride Frank Cartel, an eight-year-old dark-brown horse that Francis had recently bought from Boyd’s cousin. Andres met the horse but didn’t feel a connection. Frank Cartel had only run flat-track races and wasn’t used to the terrain of the Suicide Race. Plus, he didn’t have JD’s untamed nature, something Andres identified with. “I just trust JD more,” he said. “I’ve got a better bond with him. He’s crazier.”

During the first half of that year, Andres continued to exercise Boyd’s horses between construction jobs in Oregon. He started a honeybee farm, hoping to sell honey, candles, and lip balm at the local farmers market. He also bought and renovated a mobile home with plans of renting it out. But these were just things he did while he waited. The Suicide Race was the organizing principle of his life, the thing everything else revolved around. The hill had never abandoned him, and he wouldn’t abandon it.

After six months of healing, JD was ready to be checked out by the Suicide Race’s official veterinarian. In early summer, she gave the all clear for the horse to run. Andres was ready—he had everything he needed. Together, he and JD could charge toward the precipice once more. 

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic. Privacy Policy. Privacy Notice for California Users.