OMAK — Fans like the new $5.4 million Omak Stampede arena.
There’s more shade from the afternoon sun, and the bleacher seats are much more comfortable — with a back to lean against.
Cowboys are happy with it, too.
When the stands were filled with 8,000 spectators on Saturday night, the place was rocking. “It makes it feel like a lot bigger rodeo,” said Shawn Best, a 24-year-old bull rider from Omak.
Jockeys who ride in the Stampede’s signature event — the World Famous Suicide Race — are still getting used to it.
The Suicide Race is a short-but-daring race down a long, steep bank, across the Okanogan River, and a short gallop up the riverbank and into the Stampede arena.
Loren Marchand, this year’s Suicide Race champion, said the new arena is 30 feet shorter than the old one, so when they come galloping over the finish line, jockeys have to pull up their horses faster.
Still, he and his horse, Taz, had no trouble with the shorter arena this weekend.
The duo were first-place winners on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. They came in second place on Sunday, narrowly squeezed out by Winfred Pakootas on Mo Whiskey.
Marchand, 20, and Taz won all four races last year, making this their second straight championship.
Both jockey and horse were rookies in this race just three years ago, when they placed second overall.
George Marchand said he used to own Taz, but sold him to his friend and business partner, Jim Phillips, because he needed a down payment for his pickup truck.
But his adopted son still gets to ride him.
Marchand is really Loren’s uncle, but he adopted Loren and his brother about six years ago, when their mother — his sister — died. He’s been teaching him all about horses ever since.
“We didn’t think he’d be tough enough for this race,” Marchand said, adding, “I’m proud of him.”
There were no injured horses or jockeys during this year’s event, officials said.
The 76th Annual Omak Stampede and World Famous Suicide Race was a definite success, organizers said.
In addition to a PRCA rodeo and the Suicide Race, people wandered in and out of the Indian Encampment, a powwow put on by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
Volunteers from around the West put in many hours to pull off the annual event, said Norine McCraigie, who chairs the encampment committee.
McCraigie was grand marshal in the Stampede Grand Parade on Sunday.
She has helped organize the encampment activities for 34 years, and her mother was a main organizer for 50 years.
McCraigie remembers coming to the Stampede from the time she was a young child, and she said she’s seen bigger powwows here. “Some years, we’ve had 150 teepees, and there were several hundred dancers,” she said.
On Sunday, there were about three dozen teepees set up in the encampment, where drumming groups were playing for the dance finals.
The chicken dance is McCraigie’s favorite. But she also likes team dancing. And the owl dance. “It’s all good,” she said, smiling, as she watched some fancy dancers.
Now that the new arena is built, those in charge of the powwow are hoping to see some improvements on the other side of the Eastside Park, too.
Lottie Atkins, McCraigie’s cousin and vice chair of the encampment committee, said they’re hoping to raise money to replace old electric lines that won’t power all the vendors, trailers and powwow activities. Currently, they use generators to fill some of the need.
On Saturday night, they had to find and disconnect a trailer that plugged into their main power supply in order to get the lights back in the big tent, where dancers were performing, she said.
They also need adequate showers, she said.
Even without the improvements, Atkins said, the powwow at the Omak Stampede continues to preserve American Indian culture through dance, drumming, stick games.
“We’re trying to be a family-oriented powwow, to preserve our culture, and focus on the children here, and honor the veterans,” she said, adding, “We’re doing what our predecessors would want us to do.”