OMAK, Wash. -- When 10 tons of sturdy horseflesh and 17 yelping riders plunge down a 200-foot hill, as they did here Sunday afternoon, one thing's for sure: It gets your attention.
Horses and riders barrel down the steep slope, scramble across the Okanogan River and sprint to the finish line.
As its creators intended, Omak's legendary Suicide Race is difficult to ignore. But the event has drawn a brand of attention organizers would rather do without. Animal-rights activists want to see the Suicide Race shut down and its promoters charged with a crime.
The drowning deaths of two horses in practice runs a week ago have heightened objections to the event.
"I think we can make a case that this is reckless cruelty," said Mitchell Fox of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). Mr. Fox said an investigator from the Sacramento office of the Humane Society of the United States traveled to Omak late last week to gather information about the drownings and press for criminal charges.
The 57-year-old Suicide Race is the marquee event of the Omak Stampede rodeo, biggest event of the year in this town of 4,100.
Sunday's "elimination race" was held to narrow the field for the 1992 Suicide Race, which will accompany rodeo performances tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday.
Evolved from North American Indian mountain races, the event still draws the bulk of its competitors from the Colville and Spokane Tribes of northeast Washington.
The two recent drownings brought to at least eight the number of horses killed in conjunction with the Suicide Race in the past 10 years.
"Cactus" Jack Miller, race director, said the deaths were the result of poor judgment, not cruelty.
Mr. Fox is unconvinced.
"The individuals in this race are giving informed consent. If they want to risk their necks and their bones for a cash prize, that's their decision," he said. "We'd like to see the Suicide Race run without the horses."