The Rose Bowl game is so closely associated with the Tournament of Roses it’s hard to imagine that chariot racing — not postseason college football — was once a highlight of the annual New Year’s Day event in those carefree days of the turn of the last century.

The decision to stage chariot races following the annual floral parade was made after local fans endured two of the tournament’s dullest athletic contests. When the first-ever football game was played on Jan. 1, 1902, a crowd of 8,500 people fought to obtain the 1,000 seats at Tournament Park (now a park and athletic venue at Caltech). And the game, in which Stanford trounced Michigan 49-0, disappointed all but the most devoted fans. 

This one-sided rout and the oversize crowd convinced tournament officials to replace football with a polo match in 1903. But spectators were even more bored by this obscure sport.  

While officials sought a replacement for polo, a Broadway play based on the novel “Ben-Hur” had revived interest in chariot racing. “Ben-Hur” recounts the tale of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince enslaved by the ancient Romans who becomes a charioteer and a Christian. Because many Americans knew the story and were familiar with chariot racing, tournament officials decided to introduce the sport on Jan.1, 1904.     

Donning togas and headbands, Edwin Off, a Tournament of Roses director who knew little about horses; Mack Wiggins, an experienced charioteer; and two other competitors — C. C. West and E.E. Turner — faced off in the race. 

“The protocol of American chariot racing at the turn of the [last] century called for the competitors to circle the track at least once to the tune of a drumroll, finally moving side by side as they passed the starting line,” explained an article about the races in the Dec. 23,1968 issue of Sports Illustrated. “Once the race began it was every man for himself.”  

The charioteers drove a team of four horses yoked to their vehicle around a one-mile track; the first rider to complete the race was declared the winner.  Wiggins easily outpaced his competitors, completing his ride in 1 minute and 57 seconds. 

Off returned to the track in 1906 but lost to West, whom the Sports Illustrated story described as a “hired hand” who “wore a long, flowing cloak decorated with the Maltese cross of famed sportsman Lucky Baldwin.” Off lost control of his horse team, which continued to move after passing the finish line; one of the horses fell, plunging Off to the ground and causing injuries that ended his brief and lackluster racing career.

Uncontrollable horses and injured charioteers were common occurrences during the annual races. In the early years many horses were untrained; some would get loose from the chariot and run away, endangering the other horses and riders.    

Over the years, however, a greater level of professionalism was attained, with more experienced riders and better-trained horses entering the competition.  According to an article in Illustrated Outdoor World and Recreation (June 1913): “The chariot drivers are signed up early in the fall, and they have plenty of time to train their horses for the tournament. Skillful horsemen are chosen, liberal purses are paid to the winners, and no less than 100,000 people now visit Pasadena each New Years’ Day to witness the sport that is making Pasadena as famous as it made Rome in an earlier and less enlightened age.”

This combination of skilled horsemanship and well-trained horses enabled Charles Eugene Post to break the world’s record for charioteering on Jan.1, 1911, when he circled the half-mile speedway twice in a combined speed of 1 hour and 49.5 minutes.  

“Charioteering,” Post told Illustrated Outdoor World and Recreation, “is not a sport to rush into with the idea that you are going to cover yourself with glory. It is a strenuous recreation, a game of horsemanship and enthusiasm; and it is a mighty poor venture for the man who doesn’t understand horses. To be a charioteer, one must be able to drive horses and train horses; must be unafraid of horses; and must be enthusiastic over chariot racing.”  

In later years the tournament featured half-mile as well as one-mile races, awarding $1,000 to the one-mile winner in 1910. That year a Wild West show preceded the races, complete with horse-driven stagecoaches and a lariat-throwing competition, according to the Los Angeles Times. An ostrich race and a race between a camel and an ostrich were added to the festivities in 1913.   

But the public eventually grew tired of chariot racing. By the time the last race was staged in 1915, football had gained popularity among young people, many of whom had forgotten the tournament’s 1902 football fiasco.   

Football made its comeback in 1916, when Washington State beat Brown 14-0 in a game that received national newspaper coverage. Throughout the years the Rose Bowl game continued to garner large crowds and media attention, becoming an essential part of the Tournament of Roses.

A film adaptation of “Ben-Hur” (following earlier movie versions released in 1925 and 1959) is set to open in August. While the film may spur moviegoers’ interest in chariot racing, there’s little chance it will lead tournament officials to present this sport at the Rose Bowl.