A buffalo that races horses? It sounds like something from the old West, but Harvey Wallbanger, the racing buffalo is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1980, a small herd of buffalo, owned by Collin “TC” Thorstenson, was attacked by poachers, leaving a bison calf orphaned. TC, who worked on the Milwaukee Railroad, bottle-fed the calf and sheltered it in his car.
“He was just 35 pounds back then, and I fed him by a bottle until he was a year and a half,” he said.
“I carried him in the back of my car until he got to be about 250 pounds.”
But when TC left the young buffalo alone, he grew restless he kicked and slammed his body at the divider wall of his stall.
“I named him Harvey Wallbanger because he was always banging his body against the wall of the pen,” said Thorstenson.
TC was raised on a Sioux Indian reservation in the hills of North Dakota and had already had some success training buffalo. When Harvey got big enough, TC rigged up a saddle and tried riding him. Harvey took to riding and the two began performing at rodeos, where Harvey became a celebrity. In 1985, Harvey was invited to race against a quarter horse at Energy Downs over a 110-yard distance against a quarter horse at a real racetrack. Harvey Wallbanger won the race by 2½ lengths and that’s where the legend began.
Although Harvey ran primarily in showcase races (where no betting is allowed), his success rate was phenomenal. Harvey won 79 races from 93 starts against competitors quarter horses, thoroughbreds and even standardbreds pulling sulkies. He had known for his quick starts and tenacious finishes. For all his races he was ridden by TC in full cowboy gear — no jockey for him! Weighing over a ton, he was surprisingly nimble.
Sadly, Harvey died at age 13 after eating tainted hay — probably contaminated by oleander. TC sued the suppliers and was awarded $475,000 in damages.
TC went on to train another buffalo, Harvey Jr, but the buffalo never showed the same flare for racing and had a career acting.
For those of you considering adding a buffalo to your own herd. Don’t. In interviews, TC remarked the buffalo were very difficult to train.
A buffalo’s wild instincts make it difficult to break, and not all of them are trainable.
“Even Harvey may never be completely trustworthy. Buffalo are strong enough to flip a horse off the ground and kill it with their sharp horns. I could have trained 40 good horses during the time I spent training Harvey.”TC Thorstenson