Yellowstone Downs: Kind of a big deal

Yellowstone Downs drew a nice crowd for a small-time track. Ziggy Zack and jockey Bill Christian await their photo after winning a Thoroughbred race.

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.

YD Grandstand 5
The Yellowstone Downs grandstand.

YD Tote Board 4
The view from the cheap seats.

YD Paddock 6
The indoor paddock.

YD 9-19 Race 1
The conclusion of the Yellowstone Downs Paint and Appaloosa Futurity consolation race, won by Velvet Cowgirl and rider David Hunt.

A Sharper Rose Melody - Shaunda Larsen 2
A Sharper Rose Melody gallops back to unsaddle with Shaunda Larsen aboard.

Pc Panda Bear 1
Pc Panda Bear and Clyde Smith return from a race.

David Hunt 1
David Hunt weighs in after his win in the Futurity.

Ca Lucky Me - Jeffrey Jones 2
Ca Lucky Me is led through the post parade with Jeffery Jones in the saddle.

Chickie Baby - Brian Merrill 5
Brian Merrill leads Chickie Baby back to unsaddle.

Jatoma - Don Proctor 7
The track does not have a winner’s circle, so win pictures are taken in front of the tote board. Here, the connections of Jatoma pose for their photo with Don Proctor aboard.

There was a string stretched between the stewards’ box and the scales. Between races, this fellow would tie a note to a ring and zip it down to the clerk of scales. I never figured out what information was being relayed by the zip line, but they would always come down about five minutes after a race became official.

Ed - Don Proctor
This horse’s name is Ed. Nothing else, just Ed. That’s awesome. Ed is led from the paddock to the track with Don Proctor in the irons.

YD 9-19 Race 5d
Searspioneer heads into the stretch in the lead as the field passes the grandstand for the first time in a seven furlong race. The gelding would hang on to the lead all the way around the track and win the race under Jordan Olesiak.

YD 9-19 Race 6@
The start of a Quarter Horse race. Pictured in the background is a huge rock ledge. Billings is full of ’em.

Shacker - Jordan Olesiak
I can find Michigan ties anywhere. Jordan Olesiak, rider of the pictured Shacker, took a few mounts at Pinnacle Race Course in 2009. I could have sworn he had a presence at Great Lakes Downs as well, but my search turned up nothing.

Sajjan - Don Proctor 2
Sajjan heads down the stretch well ahead of his foes with Don Proctor aboard.

5 Chicks Brief Case - Floyd Campbell 6 Eyes Agouti - Don Proctor 4 First Down Man - David Hunt
The finish of the Yellowstone Downs Quarter Horse Derby. Chicks Brief Case (#5) and Floyd Campbell put a slim margin ahead of Eyes Agouti (#6) and Don Proctor.

Miss Rosenberger 4
Miss Rosenberger gets prepared for the Yellowstone Downs Quarter Horse Futurity.


Filed under Commentary, Pictures, Racetrack Visits, Story Time

29 responses to “Yellowstone Downs: Kind of a big deal

  1. Good stuff Joe. Love the QH pic with the stone ledge in the background and the Whalen Tire sign…

  2. mibredclaimer

    Thanks! I like that one, too. The track’s backdrop hit both ends of the spectrum in terms of scenic-ness. On one hand, the rock ledges near and in the distance were very nice to look at. On the other, you’ll notice some kind of factory with a train running by in the background of a few shots. Kind of kills the mood a little bit.

    By the way, I forgot to mention it earlier, but thanks for linking to my Indiana Derby live blog a few days ago. That was a fun post you had yourself.

  3. Joe once again you’ve outdone yourself. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to meet you there to spend the day with you!

    Looks like these horses & jocks are many of the same that I saw at the fair races here in Missoula… David Hunt & Jeff Jones are like the Mike Smith and Garret Gomez of MT. 😉

    Glad you enjoyed the beautiful rims (aka cliff walls) and big blue sky of Billings. I hope that is not your last trip to Montana!


  4. Jeff Klenner

    This is what we’ve been waiting for, Joe. Great story. Great photos. …You’ve left us wanting more, more, more!

  5. Richard Roma

    What about those saddle towels?!! 6 is Orange?! That would give a track announcer fits! The grandstand looks huge relative to the size of the operation. As you said, I guess they use it for other events as well.

    How did the track play? Was it in pretty good shape composition wise? My experience is that the smaller the track, the tougher it is to make up any ground. Was that the case?

    You’re the man!

  6. mibredclaimer

    Thank you very much. I think you definitely would have gotten a kick out of it.

    I don’t know, the jockeys were pretty big. I think a more accurate comparison could be made if you put Go-Go on Mike Smith’s shoulders.

    Those rims were terrifying. We drove to the top of one north of town and I was darn near high-fiving with the planes landing behind me. The cliff was probably 15 stories down with no fence or rail and people were just jogging along the edge of it. I got out to look at the view of Billings, but became paralyzed by fear about eight feet away from the edge. Seemed like a really good place to end one’s one life, or at least dump a body to make it look like an accident.

    Thanks a bunch! Don’t worry, I’ve still got Prairie Meadows to examine. With any luck, I’d like to have that up next week before I leave for Kentucky.

    I could see it tripping up a new announcer, but I would imagine you’d get used to it eventually. Mount Pleasant Meadows has unorthodox colors, too, but I eventually committed the scheme to muscle memory and it’s not a problem anymore.

    The grandstand was pretty big. When I first got there, I wondered to myself how much of it would remain vacant, but it filled up pretty well.

    Quinellas were huge there. I’m normally an exacta box player, and eventually had to change my gameplan when I realized the quinellas were paying out better than the exactas. Go figure.

    In the Thoroughbred races, the front speed rarely finished worse than second. The winning horse was usually no farther back than second or third coming into the stretch.

    The track surface was really…clumpy. So much so, I took a picture of it, which you can see at the below link…

    YD Surface

  7. Tom Miscannon


    Brilliant job, as always! Great read. You seem to be knocking down more tracks than me this summer.

    Still not to late to join me on my UK swing next month, 10 tracks in 9 days (only 4 first-timers).

    Stay well. Tom

  8. mibredclaimer

    Thank you very much!

    Well, I’ve got a quite a few more new tracks within driving distance that remain uncharted than you, so that gives me a bit of an advantage. If I had to venture out as far as Retama to find new tracks, I’d probably be checking them off on a much slower clip.

    Ten tracks in nine days…Wow. You’d probably have to drag me behind you after the sixth or seventh.

    Have you been to Yellowstone Downs yet?

    • Tom Miscannon

      No, not yet. But Yellowstone is on the list for 2011. I had to cancel the Swiss/Italy and Ireland trips next year. King Congo came up with a really bad bone bruise in his left rear foot, so I have to watch my pennies until he returns to racing. He’s just about healed, but he’s not going back into training until January, looking forward to racing him on the grass starting in April. I was up to see him two weeks ago and he looked fantastic.

      If the following tracks run next year, the plan will be:
      Jun – Eastern Oregon Fair & Chippewa Downs
      Aug – Montana Downs & Sandy Downs
      Sep – Ruidoso Downs, Albuquerque and Yellowstone Downs

      That’ll set up #300 (Oct) in the Czech Republic at Parbudice to see the most challenging steeplechase/cross country race in the world, the Velka Pardubicka. It’s a little over 4 1/4 miles, with 31 obstacles to jump. Here’s the link to last years race:

      Best, Tom

  9. Great stuff, Joe! Have you ever thought of taking a massive roadtrip, and hit every track in America? Maybe Ray Paulick and you? 🙂 Definitely would make for intriguing reading.

    Your photos are fantastic too!

  10. So, yeah several people die every year falling (jumping?) off the rims in Billings. They are a little scary, and there are trails *right* along the edge. People in MT are hardcore, obviously.

    And the “clumpy” track? No suprises there!!! That’s DIRT baby real life DIRT. Did they even groom the track at all while you were there? Yeah, didn’t think so. Kickin’ it old skool.

  11. mibredclaimer

    Thanks! An undertaking like that sounds really expensive, and I’m not good enough at playing the horses to support myself out on the road for very long. I’d have to get a sponsor or something, and dressing up like a NASCAR driver at the races would blow my cover pretty quickly. I like to approach new tracks as an anonymous patron, or as close as possible. Still something to ponder someday, though.

    As for making the trip with Paulick, I can imagine that tour journal deteriorating into us plotting each other’s murders by the time we reached the halfway point, especially if we go on a losing streak. Then again, if that’s what brings in the readers…

    If you’re interested in the “Visiting every track” idea, you need to check out Tom Miscannon (who commented just a few inches above this). He’s been to 286 tracks (if my counting is correct) all over the world and counting. I interviewed him over the summer and he has some awesome stories. Here’s the link…

    Did it ever occur to these people to put up a rail, or do they argue it would interfere with their natural beauty…or something?

    I think they had a tractor drag the surface between races, but I don’t recall off the top of my head. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t.

  12. A rail would totally spoil the natural beauty! Montanans don’t like to fenced in, as it were, best to leave these things to their own devices.

    And Tom- I see that Montana Downs (Great Falls) and Yellowstone Downs (Billings) are on your schedule for next year… You should consider adding the Western Montana Fair meet in Missoula. This year it was August 13 & 14. Small track with a lot of history, come check it out. I had a great time at the meet, even after being spoiled by KY racing at Churchill & Keeneland. As a bonus, Missoula is a great town… and I’m not just saying that because I live here!


    • Tom Miscannon


      Thank you for mentioning Missoula. I had to go back and look at this year’s dates and I was in error. I will try to be in Missoula next year, not Great Falls. Ideally, it will be Missoula on Friday, then Idaho Cup Day at Sandy Downs on Saturday. Hopefully, the dates will line up next year, like they did this year.

      If I make the trip (and I hope to), maybe you can show me around Missoula and the Western Montana Fair. Joe and his family did a great job when I visited Mount Pleasant Meadows. Always better to “share” a day at the races.

      Best, Tom

  13. W.A.MILLER

    I rode around the Montana/Wyoming/So.Dak./Idaho fair circuit when I was about twelve/thirteen years old. At Great Falls & Billings I had to lie about my age because law said I had to be sixteen. At Great Falls I rode the winner,(Not So Bad), of the Governors Hdp. for Emmet Marsh. I still have the photo. I am seventy nine now and the memories your stories and photos bring back. Thanks.

  14. mibredclaimer

    W.A. Miller,
    Glad I could bring back some memories for you. Awesome story. Montana seems like it has a neat circuit, so if I ever find myself in the area again, I’m definitely going to try hitting the other tracks. Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Stacia

    Loved the article. It took me back to my youth and every weekend spent in the stands at Rillito Downs in Tucson, AZ.

  16. rox

    Remember Glendale Downs in Hillsdale? Loaded at the road, went around a sharp hook with I think some rubber fencing, maybe board, not sure, with a huge drop-off on the other side, and then headed back to the barn area, with a chain-link fence to stop you. Fun. Bleachers usually packed.

  17. mibredclaimer

    There really is nothing like small track racing, huh? I’ve heard a lot of neat things about Rillito. Definitely on my list of tracks to visit. Thanks for stopping by.

    I’ve heard a lot of stories about Glendale Downs, but it was way before my time. Definitely sounds like my kind of place, though.

  18. Jeff Jones

    Joe,Thankyou for coming to the races in Mont. Yes it’s old school andyou would be suprized at the love for the game that is in this state! Like any other state mont. is rich with a past of people that would draw your intrest, when you return next year get in one of my win pictures – if you would like and your memories will be in color not just print! “GREAT REVIEW”

    Jockey – Jeffery Jones

  19. Joe-
    You are officially famous- THE Jeff Jones just commented on your blog- way to go!
    And way to go Jeff- I really enjoyed watching you win races in Missoula this year!

  20. mibredclaimer

    It was my pleasure. It definitely seemed like a passionate and knowledgeable fan base there. I will definitely take you up on that winner’s circle offer next time I find myself on the Montana circuit. Congrats on winning the riding title at YD this year! Thanks for commenting.

    It is pretty exciting. I believe Mr. Jones is the first jockey to comment on one of my racetrack visit posts, so this is a groundbreaking moment.

  21. Jill R. LaCroix

    My mom and I own Chicks Brief Case. I think your web-site is awesome. I am the treasurer for South Dakota Quarter Horse Racing Association, and we are just working at keeping racing alive in South Dakota. They are doing the same in Montana. We just need more people like you to tell it like it really is.
    Hey, my sweet jockey flew in from AZ. and he has been at it for several years. His weight is lll lb.. The clerk of scales made him step on twice, couldn’t believe they had a jockey actually underweight!!
    Yellowstone Downs is no easy pickins for us dumb horse owners. There are some real quality horses there. It is really a fun time, and I hope to see it continue. We call these tracks the bush tracks, but generally speaking “All good horses have to start somewhere” . Training tracks are an absolute necessity is this field.
    I agree with you totally on the Indian relay race. I was pretty upset and disgusted. I was informed that the horse did not have to be put down and recovered. I don’t know. It was the poor rider I was worried about more.
    Maybe in your travels, you should visit SD. We race in Ft. Pirre and Aberdeen. This is real bush, but some very good horses. Come as you are and be prepared for snow and rain and wind. But a really memorable time.
    We would be happy to have you visit and you can contact me at this e-mail address should your horse racing dreams ever take you to South Dakota,

  22. mibredclaimer

    Congratulations on your big win! Love the jockey story.

    I can definitely relate to trying to keep the industry alive in your home state. Michigan is in a pretty dire situation, too.

    A lot of the great ones get their start at the “bush tracks”, and they always have the best atmosphere – no pretension. The big tracks are nice, but all that blue-blood stuff can get old. You don’t see that at the small venues.

    As for the Indian relay, that horse sure looked like a goner to me, but perhaps there was a miraculous recovery after I left. From what I saw, I wouldn’t have bet on it.

    I’ll definitely keep you posted if my travels take me to South Dakota. I’m not sure if it will be anytime in the near future, but a month and a half ago, I never would have imagined myself at Yellowstone Downs, so you never know. Thanks for commenting!



  24. David Hunt

    Great review, come back next year. You’ll definetly have to bet on Jeff and me considering we win about 90% of the races.However you did get some great pics too really good job.

    Jockey David Hunt aka the Garret Gomez of Montana

  25. mibredclaimer

    Thanks! A swing back to Montana wasn’t in the cards for next year, but with so many invitations, I just might have to make it happen.

  26. kiwi

    i just enjoyed reading your story on us and montana ~bush~ racing we have some racing like that here in new zealand too although our jockeys and trainers dont seem to be so narrowly restricted as to where they ply their trade ie bush track one week and triple crown the next as ours can.verry enjoyable i rekon

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