Tag Archives: Yellowstone Downs

The case for small tracks: A Top Ten

Small tracks are not the reason for horse racing's current situation. Shutting them down would only further damage the sport.

To help combat sagging business in the horse racing industry, a growing population of industry members have begun calling for a contraction of racetracks in North America.

In his keynote speech at the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program Symposium, Churchill Downs CEO Robert Evans presented a plan that would potentially halve the number of racetracks in North America. Evans said this plan would create “a business that is economically viable” that focuses on a “quality product” . That sentiment was echoed by superstar freelancer Claire Novak in a recent debate about whether fans or bettors drive the racing industry.

Allow me to respectfully disagree.

I make no bones about being a small track guy. My home course is a four furlong mixed breed oval in what one pessimistic message board poster called “no man’s land”. My state’s Thoroughbred industry has been in decline for decades, expedited by the addition of expanded gaming in other nearby states. If contraction were to happen tomorrow, there is little doubt Pinnacle Race Course and Mount Pleasant Meadows would be among the first to go.

But does it really have to come to that? Putting my bias aside, there are plenty of reasons why slashing the number of racing venues, especially those on the sport’s lowest levels, would only further damage the sport we love.

To help prove my point in an easy-to-digest manner, I have created a ten-point list, a “Top Ten” if you will, of reasons why contraction would eventually cripple horse racing in North America and why our small venues are worth standing up for against the will of the powers that be.

Please note, this is not a call for subsidization of failing tracks. If a track shows it is not viable and the ownership has no interest in keeping it afloat, then so be it. However, if the will to live among ownership and horsemen remains strong, then no one has the right to strong-arm them into shutting down.

From the top…

10. The Almighty Dollar
Governments typically don’t like to openly admit that they like horse racing. In fact, most are content to watch it rot on the vine as long as they don’t have to spend any money. However, it is no secret that they sure enjoy the tax revenue that racetracks bring in through wagering and other avenues. Threaten that cash flow with a “sweeping industry contraction initiative” and see how those governments, especially on the local level, respond to their track being on the chopping block. Nothing mobilizes an elected official like telling him he can’t make money.

But let’s keep it on the racetrack for now. Many small tracks run their meet for the sole purpose of keeping simulcast wagering in their plant. Not every state has off-track betting parlors or advanced deposit wagering as a source to bet on racing, and if their local bullring closes down, so does their chance to bet on the races. Mr. Evans has made himself the face of the contraction movement with his keynote speech. However, nothing will suffer more from people being unable to place bets than his all-sources Kentucky Derby handle. The Derby is the one day that casual fans brave the smoky simulcast rooms to bet on the horse they read about in the paper. These people probably aren’t going to sign up for TwinSpires or drive another hour and a half or more to go to the next nearest simulcast outlet. That money will vanish into the ether and likely never return.

The remainder of the countdown can be found behind the jump.

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Photo of the Year: 2010

This photo of Zenyatta and super-skilled photographer Jamie Newell is probably the photo of the year, but for the sake of competition, it gets a free pass.

As it was mentioned in previous discussions, 2010 was a big year.

I visited a lot of places, I took a lot of pictures, I’ve seen a million faces and I rocked ’em all.

Okay, perhaps that last line is a wee bit exaggerated, but two and a quarter years of operation on this site is too long to go without a Bon Jovi reference.

The first two parts of the statement, however, are completely true. The last year afforded me the opportunity to visit racing venues and big events around the country, and I have tried my best to bring my readers along for the ride with my tales and photos.

That brings us to the annual display of my favorite memories from those travels: The 3rd Annual Michigan-Bred Claimer Photo of the Year poll.

Truth be told, my best photo is all but certainly the one shown above of super-skilled photographer Jamie Newell and Zenyatta the morning after the Breeders’ Cup Classic, titled “Consolation”. That projection is supported by the photo’s third-place showing in the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance photo contest. If I have not said it before, allow me to take this opportunity to thank everyone kind enough to throw a vote my way. We’ll get ’em next year.

For the sake of competition, we’ll consider that one the winner by default and conduct the poll as usual to determine a reserve champion. Unlike the TBA contest, this is one vote I can’t lose.

All of the photos included in this poll were shot with a Kodak EasyShare Z980.

Thank you all for reading, commenting, voting and otherwise being a part of what was a huge 2010. I look forward to providing a front row seat to my adventures in 2011 and beyond.

Behind the jump are the 20 photos I have handpicked as my favorites of 2010. Have a look, then vote for your favorite in the poll on the left side of the page. Comments are always welcome, too.

And now, without further ado…

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Making the most of 2010: A look back on the year

The days leading up to New Year’s Eve offer a time for reflection on the year gone by.

For most, doing so may conjure up a roller coaster of memories, recollections, emotions and perhaps scars. Some will find they have made the most of the year, while others might discover that they have done very little with the last 365 days.

After doing some searching of my own, I have no problem staking my claim in the former group.

I often carry massive stacks of photo albums and other mementos in my vehicle because I always assume people do not believe me when I tell them the stories of my adventures. To save time and space, I have compiled some of the highlights of my 2010 into a handy bulleted list of links to posts of those stories.

Even after putting it into an itemized list, it boggles my mind that I experienced all of this in a lifetime, much less in one year. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I am a lucky son of a gun.

Let’s have a look at some of the things that have gone down since this time last year.

In the year 2010 I…

Said goodbye to the man who got me into this whole mess in the first place.
Watched the Michigan Gaming Control Board slash the state’s race dates.
Checked two tracks off my wish list.
Watched the Michigan Gaming Control Board slash the state’s race dates again.
Was told to get out of Michigan by Chris McCarron at Keeneland Race Course.
Followed a colt with Michigan ties through the Keeneland Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale.
Gave out 20-1 winner Exhi in my ThoroFan Handicapper’s Corner preview of the Coolmore Lexington Stakes.
Drove off the beaten path to chase the Fortune 6 wager at Beulah Park…And was promptly dumped out by the second leg.
Wrote some haikus for Claire Novak’s NTRA blog.
Lost a Kentucky Derby pin collecting contest against Dr. Sale Guru Emily.
Got pelted by a flying mint julep on Kentucky Oaks day.
Roamed the backstretch to gather quotes after the Kentucky Derby.
Went to Mount Pleasant Meadows a lot.
Hosted racetrack bucket-lister Tom Miscannon during his visit to Michigan.
Suited up in the box seats at Arlington Park.
Broke down a Pick 4 while waiting in line for a cage fight, then did a phone interview about my selections during an intermission for Claire Novak’s Youbet On-Track podcast.
Watched the next generation of Michigan-breds go through the sale ring.
Ate, bet and drove my way through Hoosier Park, Ellis Park, Riverside Downs, The Red Mile and River Downs, which earned the attention of Jennie Rees’ blog.
Severely underestimated the popularity of racing in Montana at Yellowstone Downs.
Played blackjack and the Quarter Horses at Prairie Meadows.
Live blogged the Indiana Derby on-site at Hoosier Park.
Partied with Bo Derek, Toby Keith. Encountered Kentucky’s governor. Visited champion mare Zenyatta in her stall.
Witnessed one of the greatest races in the history of the sport – The Breeders’ Cup Classic – Even if the outcome wasn’t what we had all hoped.
Got to pet Zenyatta, cover breaking news in the Churchill Downs press box.

I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis…Stay thirsty, my friends.

Okay, perhaps that last statement is not entirely accurate, but it seemed like the right thing to say at the time.

Later today, my travels will take me to Turfway Park. Once there, I will have been to every still-active track I have ever visited within the 2010 calendar year…If that makes any sense. Turfway was the last track I visited in 2009 as well, so it is fitting to bring everything full circle.

This year has been, without a doubt, the most memorable ride of my life. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who shared in my adventures over the last 12 months at the races, in the press box, in meetings, at parties, on the road, on this site and all points in between. You are the ones who make all these stories worth telling, be it as a reader or an active participant.

Now let’s try to carry some of this good mojo into 2011, shall we?

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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.

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