There is an old saying about what happens when a person makes assumptions.
I won’t bother you with the details, but it ends awkwardly for everyone involved.
That lesson was driven home following a visit to Yellowstone Downs in Billings, Montana.
I was afforded the opportunity to visit the mixed breed racetrack as part of a family vacation to Wyoming. Billings is not far from the Wyoming/Montana border, so it was a quick swing off the beaten path.
Looking over the track’s website and entries on Equibase, I got the impression the track was similar in size and scope to Mount Pleasant Meadows; small to moderate-sized fields and purses, a lightly populated jockey colony and a state hardly known as a racing hotbed. I was expecting a couple hundred people at the most there to watch their friends and loved ones compete on the horses running under their colors.
Sa-wing and a miss.
While everything from paddock to post was what I thought it would be, the human element was comparable to a track of much larger prestige. The Billings Gazette reports the attendance for Yellowstone’s closing day, which I attended, at 5,110 fans and a total handle of $109,086. That’s not an error. I checked it out. $109,086. I didn’t realize racing was that big in Montana.
Yellowstone Downs is located at the MetraPark, an expo center that hosts, among other things, the MontanaFair (all one word, not to be confused with the Montana State Fair, which hosts racing of its own). Like many fair tracks, the facilities are multi-purpose. The track and grandstand are separated by a concrete wall with a catch fence sticking out that suggests the track might moonlight as an auto racing venue.
Admission for the day was five dollars, which considering the quality of the facilities and level of racing is incredibly steep. Programs were another three dollars – still well above the Mendoza Line, but they were of very good quality, so I was willing to let it slide.
The track appeared to be of the half-mile variety with a short quarter horse chute. Because of the short chute, Thoroughbred sprint races were carded at 5 1/4 furlongs, which is a new one for me. Adding to the track’s unorthodox setup was the separate finish lines for Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse races. The blue-lined pole for Thoroughbreds sat in front of the toteboard (which is more functional than either of Michigan’s flat tracks) while the red Quarter Horse pole sat further down the stretch.
The saddling paddock was nestled under the grandstand toward the top of the stretch. Each numbered stall bore the name and silks of a legendary racehorse – John Henry, Secretariat, Ruffian and Man O’ War to name a few. The crowds regularly ran at least three deep all the way around the paddock, even with people balancing on the sections of three-tier bleachers spread around the perimeter.
After exploring the grandstands for a while, the announcer came over the PA system and went over the day’s program changes. Never before had I heard of a jockey listed as a double-digit overweight, but Yellowstone Downs was ripe with them. If my math is correct, there was more than one jockey weighing in near or over 130 pounds, and several of them were well above the preferred height for a jockey. Small track racing is awesome.
Outside of my forays into harness racing, my visit to Yellowstone was the first time in my handicapping career where I arrived at a venue completely outside of my wheelhouse of knowledge. In past track visits, there was a reasonable chance I would spot some familiar tracks or bloodlines in the program in which to base relative class. Even when simulcasting California tracks, I had a reasonable idea what to look for in terms of comparative tracks and class levels. At Yellowstone, I constantly found myself flipping to the front of the program to decipher the abbreviations of small northwest fair tracks and making assumptions on which ones might be of higher class. Of course, the abbreviations key apparently hadn’t been updated since Detroit Race Course shut its doors (we’re talking about 12 years, here), so some of the more obscure letter combinations were left unreferenced.
Yellowstone’s Thoroughbred platoon hailed largely from the Montana fair circuit, but several had experience at Arapahoe Park in Colorado, and a surprising number of horses shipped in from Canterbury Park in Minnesota or the Nebraska circuit. The Quarter Horses that were not Montana regulars had starts as far east as Minnesota, as far south as Delta Downs in Louisiana and as far west as New Mexico’s Ruidoso Downs.
My timing for arriving at the track was impeccable. Yellowstone Downs’ closing card featured Montana’s richest race – The $34,700 Yellowstone Downs Quarter Horse Futurity. Also on the card was the YD Quarter Horse Derby, the consolation races for those two stakes and the final round of the Montana Distance series.
The card opened with the consolation race for the Yellowstone Downs Paint and Appaloosa Futurity; the final having been run the previous day. I hit the exacta for a small payout, which is a fine way to make a first impression.
Looking at the post parade revealed some more idiosyncrasies about Yellowstone Downs. First, the maximum field size for each race was limited to eight horses, regardless of the breed. As can be seen in the photos, there were additional stalls in the starting gate, but only eight were used. The program also listed several early scratches at the bottom of the page suggesting horses that did not draw in.
Second, the riders wore track colors with few exceptions. The silks for each corresponding saddlecloth were jazzed up a bit with various designs, but they were uniform for the number they were assigned. Along those lines, the saddlecloth colors did not correspond with the typical Thoroughbred color scheme. One through four were the same, but five was black, six was orange, seven was purple and eight was green.
Wandering through the grandstand, it was clear that the Chip Woolley look was in. There was easily at least seven guys on the property with black cowboy hats and narrow cowboy mustaches. Heck, the Kentucky Derby-winning trainer could have been there and I couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup unless he showed up on crutches.
Between races, I decided to try a cheeseburger. I feel it necessary to try the burgers at as many tracks as possible to see how they compare to the world champion of racetrack burgers, hailing from Ellis Park. The patty was thick and flavorful, if a bit greasy. While among the better track concession burgers I have had, the Ellis burger remains on top.
My luck at the windows headed south after that first race, and I only cashed one ticket the rest of the afternoon. My toughest beat came in the feature, the Yellowstone Downs QH Futurity, when both of my horses were taken out by a rank runner who proceeded to pitch her rider and send him tumbling town the stretch. He would get up shaken, but under his own power.
Someone on the grounds was making money, though. The superfecta, which is apparently a really big deal in Montana because the announcer hyped it up like it was the Powerball, paid $10,237 in the nightcap. This is made even more impressive when one considers the fact that this was done in an eight horse field. The smaller field means fewer combinations and a higher likelihood of multiple winning tickets, diminishing the payout.
As the day wore on, the crowd continued to swell. The lines to the ticket windows got a little longer, but there was still an adequate number of mutuel tellers to keep things moving. I could not believe the amount of people who had come to see the races.
After the races finished, the crowd was asked to stick around to watch the Indian Relay about to commence. Billings is just on the outskirts of the Crow Indian Reservation, so the tribe had a big presence at the track, both as spectators and handicappers (a tribe and the racetracks coexisting peacefully…Go figure). We were told by someone in the grandstands after the fact that the relay is a tradition amongst the tribe and a celebration of horsemanship.
As the announcer went over the ground rules, a pack of jittery-looking horses was led out by people in colored shirts to symbolize each team. I don’t know if it was ever said whether the horses belonged to the participants or were on loan from the backstretch.
The rules of the race were as follows: One member of the team rode a horse bareback around the track, then jumped off and jumped back on another horse held by a teammate. The first team to complete four circuits was the winner.
There did not appear to be much organization in this race. There was no apparent starting signal, aside from a few of the riders deciding to go. Meanwhile, the remaining team members struggled to keep their horses under control.
The race was indeed an impressive display of horsemanship, until one of the horses got loose during an exchange and plowed into the back of another waiting horse and its handler. The standing horse went down immediately and fell over its handler as the running horse tried to go over both the hard way. As the race continued, trained personnel tended to the fallen human and horse. The horse did not make any attempt to get up and had to be put down. It happened so close to the grandstand that putting up the blue tarp did little to shield the audience from what was going on.
They were both still down when the race concluded and the winner’s circle photo was taken. We left before we learned the fate of the handler, but he was at least breathing, and the next day’s paper (of which Yellowstone’s closing day made the front page of the sports section) made no mention of any horse-related fatalities, so one would assume he pulled through. In retrospect, one catastrophic breakdown and one human injury was probably a relatively positive outcome. With so many jumpy horses in such an chaotic setting, it was not hard to imagine worse things happening.
The grim outcome of the Indian Relay put a bit of a dark cloud over what was otherwise an enjoyable day at Yellowstone Downs. It would be hard to justify a trip from Michigan just to make a return visit, but it is a worthy destination if one’s late summer travels should take him or her near Billings. Just don’t let the entries fool you into thinking the track is small potatoes, because we all know what happens when one assumes…
Behind the jump are photos from my visit to Yellowstone Downs.