CHERRY CORNER —Six years ago, the idea of an event involving horse-drawn wagons blasting their way along a ribbon-shaped grass track at full speed was a very new concept in Kentucky.
Darrin McCuiston believed it could grow into something people would want to see and that competitors would want to put on their schedule of events to visit. It started with a few teams from three states.
This past weekend, one thing appeared to be certain: this event, the West Kentucky Chuck Wagon Races, has taken hold, with as many as 2,500 to 3,000 spectators coming to see what this entails and competitors from nine states providing the rip-roaring entertainment.
McCuiston could not be happier.
“When you see people standing up with their eyes getting big, you know you’ve got something really special,” said McCuiston, whose ranch in the Cherry Corner community of Calloway County, about five miles southeast of Murray, served as the host of all of the action. “We’re so pumped up about this. If you’re not here, you’re missing it.”
That seems to be the attitude of the competitors, namely the ones who choose to be the ones sitting on the wagons and attempting to somehow control the horses and mules with nothing but long-handled reins. Cameron Martin, who has been competing in chuck wagon racing since 2011, came from Batesville, Arkansas to be part of this weekend’s event in Calloway County.
“I’ve been coming here since the first one they had, and it’s become one of my favorite races all year – and I go all summer long to places,” said Martin, who lives a short distance from Clinton, Arkansas, where the national championship of this sport is decided every year. “I’ve been going to that ever since I was a little boy. When I got old enough, I decided to put together a team myself.
“We go to Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi and Missouri, but it’s just starting to make its way across (the Mississippi) river here, thanks to Darrin here. He’s one of the first ones to bring it over here.”
Corey Huie of Murray has been bringing his family to this event every year and he said that along with the fact that it is only a short distance from his home, he likes the atmosphere.
“It’s in the fall, when things have cooled up a bit,. Plus, this is one of those things where you’re able to turn your kids loose and everybody here takes care of everybody else, ” said Huie, who used to pilot harness race horses. “When I was jockey size, of course. That was about 30 years ago. But it’s pretty exhilarating, especially if you’ve got a good horse.
“I’ve never done this, and the pasture seems pretty wild when they let them run out through the crowd when they miss a turn or something. That’s a little different.”
Yes, the action can get a little hairy near the track. McCuiston said this is especially true with mules.
“A mule is a mule. If they see something that they don’t like, they’re going to want to go back to camp, and they’re not the most cooperative animal in the world,” he said of how several spectators watch the action while standing near the track or, as he was doing Saturday, while sitting atop a horse. “Out here, you need to have your head on a swivel.”
There have been close calls over the years, McCuiston said. One happened last year when an outrider (who is teamed with a wagon and is charged with crossing the finish line ahead of the vehicle) was injured after being bucked off a horse. He also said a wagon managed to go airborne and land atop a plastic barrel used to mark the boundaries of the track.
However, that is part of it, and it seems Kentucky competitors are starting to show in larger numbers. Matt Hagan came from Morganfield in Union County this year, his first as a competitor.
“I love it. It’s the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever had in my life,” Hagan said, noting that this desire to compete came after he accompanied a friend to Cherry Corner last year. “That’s how I found out about all of this. So we came down here and watched it after (his friends) had watched it somewhere and told me to come.
“I got addicted.”
Mayfield’s Michael Darnall may follow in Hagan’s footsteps. This weekend marked his first-ever visit to Cherry Corner, as a spectator.
He said that after seeing these races, he might try to start competing.
“I’m hooked. This is amazing,” Darnall said. “I’ve been riding horses my whole life and this is totally different from anything I’ve seen. The people are athletic, the animals are athletic. It’s just a blessing to watch all of these people come out here and cowboy up the way they do.”