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Guest Opinions

History in the Making: Wyoming Downs Pairs Live Horse Racing with Historic Race Terminals

Written by Rochelle McArthur

June 24 will mark a “first” in Wyoming history when Wyoming Downs pairs live horse racing with Historic Horse Racing (HHR) terminals at its Evanston track.

“It’s historic in every sense of the word,” said Rick Cook, Wyoming Downs Chief Operating Officer. “For the first time ever, the two attractions are going to be offered under the same roof at the same time. It’s not hard to predict that 2017 will be bigger and better than ever.”

The 16-day season kicks off on June 24 and continues through Aug. 13, with gates opening at 11:30 a.m. and the first race at 1:05 p.m. Each race day hosts eight races, with up to 10 horse fields.

The track’s historic new additions, HHR terminals as they are known, will feature new games including Buckaroo Rodeo, Very Cherry, Street Cash, Double Horseshoes, Dancing Diamonds, Patriotic Pay Day and more. Just as they do at Wyoming Downs’ off-track betting facilities, the track’s 20 new terminals will offer added excitement for racing enthusiasts. 

2017 signals the fifth year horses have raced at Wyoming Downs since Eric Nelson re-purchased Wyoming’s only privately owned horseracing track at auction in 2012. A real estate investor, Nelson originally bought the track in 1998 and operated it through 2006 when he decided to sell. However, in 2009, that owner shut the track down, and along with the shutdown went the hopes of those whose livelihoods depended on live horseracing. The impact on Wyoming, Utah and other intermountain area owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys and farmers who made up the industry was demoralizing. Many left or considered leaving their part of industry behind.

After his 2012 re-purchase, Nelson began the process of dusting off Wyoming Downs and bringing live racing back to the track where the grandstands hold 5,000 people and there are stalls for 850 horses. He knew, though, that live racing could only be sustained with the introduction of Historic Horse Racing. 

Betting that it would finally happen, and after years of legislative consideration, Nelson saw live racing’s resurgence eventually made possible. In 2012, the Wyoming legislature approved historic horse racing terminals.

In 2013, Wyoming Downs featured an unprecedented two-day season to signal to the industry and the fans the track was back in action. HHR machines were introduced in Wyoming at off-track betting facilities in January 2014, and with their introduction and revenue, the Wyoming Downs track began a full 16-day racing season that June.

Those HHR terminals are currently located in Wyoming Downs’ eight off-track betting facilities throughout the state. In addition to paying betters at the racetrack and winners at the off-track betting facilities, the income from the historic racing terminals now funds the racetrack’s operations, purses and other track expenses, not to mention the state and local economies that benefit from the industry taxes and fees.

June 24, 2017 marks the first moment HHR terminals will be available at the track, as well as at off-track betting facilities.

“Yes, it’ll be a big day for everyone. We’ve come a long way,” said a smiling Nelson.

Looking toward the future, Nelson wants to focus on larger purses for the races and more non-horse racing events at the track, like concerts, rodeos and other special events.

In addition to the horseracing and HHR terminals, this year’s 16-day Wyoming Downs race season will feature special events every day. Live music from 4:30-7:30 is set to follow races on several race weekends.

Judy Horton, public relations and event coordinator, has scheduled a full slate of special events. Among them, the first weekend will feature the Wyoming Youth Racing Experience for ages 15-18. June 24 will be Legislative Day, with local and state officials as special guests and the Wyoming Downs Governor’s Cup and the John Schiffer-Sue Wallis Tribute. AQHA Racing Aces will feature handicapping seminars on July 1-2, with special guest Jennifer Hancock giving personal help placing wagers. The second annual Brew Fest will be held in conjunction with the first annual Car Show on Aug. 5. A full schedule of special events is at wydowns.com

First-time live racing betters can look for Jodi Lopez, Wyoming Downs’ mutual manager, who will be on site to assist those new to horse racing. Lopez handles wagering and all pools.

“If you’d like assistance, come to window 118, next to the office. I’d love to talk with folks and help them with the process,” said Lopez.

Jodi knows the track inside and out. Her whole family has been involved since 1986, when her father was the track’s superintendent. The Gary Waite Maiden Derby is named after her dad. These days, her brother is the starter.

Along with Wyoming fans, much of the crowd, made up of families and people of all ages, hails from Salt Lake City, Utah and the surrounding Utah area. But, every year, license plates testify to a hearty showing from Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona and California. Generally, in addition to Wyoming entries, the largest group of owners, trainers, horses and jockeys are from Utah, Montana and Idaho. However, they are known to come from a dozen states and from as far as Minnesota.

Wyoming Downs Racetrack is located on Highway 89 off I-80 approximately 15 minutes north of Evanston. Coming from Utah take Exit 3 through Evanston.

Ticket prices are $10 for general admission and $20 for clocker’s corner table seating. Children under 12 are free. A number of food concessions are available, as well as wine, beer, specialty liquor drinks and soft drinks. The day’s last race will conclude at approximately 5:30 p.m.

For more information, see wydowns.com or call 307-789-7223.