For the past four years, the sound of horse hooves thundering down the racetrack has been absent during the Northwest Montana Fair.
That changes this year, as horse racing makes its return to Kalispell for the final two days of the fair, Aug. 21 and Aug. 22.
“We are racing in Kalispell live this year,” Janis Schoepf, member of the All Breeds Turf Club and assistant race director. “You can’t even imagine the hundreds and hundreds of details that need to be attended to.”
The All Breeds Turf Club and the Blackfeet Tribe are sponsoring the races without financial help from Flathead County. The Northwest Montana Fair has sponsored past races, but officials cited revenue losses and insurance worries as reason to stop in 2005.
The track has been silent every August since then. But a recent shakeup in fairgrounds management structure gave the equine club an opening to pursue racing once more, Schoepf said.
“I think they’re looking for opportunities to revive the fair and the opportunity presented itself,” Schoepf said. “It was a great chance for us to bring horse racing back to the valley.”
Ryan Sherman, executive secretary for the Montana Board of Horse Racing, said most horse races in smaller venues are the result of the interest and work of private clubs, citing Kalispell and races in Idaho as examples.
This has been the typical model for about 15 years, Sherman said. Counties used to help subsidize the races, but have had to shift focus and money to other areas, he added.
In Kalispell’s case, the county is renting the facility to the All Breeds Turf Club, which, in turn, is responsible for the general liability insurance, Schoepf said.
The Turf Club must also pick up the slack on tasks the county managed when it sponsored the event, meaning everything from event security to advertising to making sure the electrical outlets work, Schoepf said.
“We’re learning as we go, every single second,” Schoepf said. “At no point does any of this cost the county taxpayer.”
The races received state board approval on June 17, too late to get any of the state money used to help bolster race purses, Sherman said. State rules mandate that all applications for this money, compiled largely through simulcast racing revenue, must be in by Nov. 1 of the previous year, Sherman said.
“We’ve already allotted our state money for 2010,” Sherman said.
Kalispell will be eligible next year if it decides to allow races again, he added.
This does not mean, however, the Kalispell racers are merely running for bragging rights. The Turf Club has already raised roughly $35,000 in sponsorships and Schoepf said she plans on averaging $1,500 to $2,000 for winners’ purses, with some of the better purses around $7,500.
Schoepf hopes to schedule a full card of eight to 10 races a day.
The group will also fall back on help from volunteers throughout the county, Schoepf said, and its members hope more people come out of the woodwork to lend a hand.
Interim Fair Manager Ted Dykstra Jr. said he has been working with the Turf Club for months to get horse racing back to the valley. He noted that the county relinquishes financial risk by not sponsoring the event.
“(The sponsors) take all the risk, but they get all the money from it too,” Dysktra said.
Sherman said he viewed horse racing’s return to Kalispell as a possible comeback for the sport, which was previously eliminated from Missoula’s Western Montana Fair but is also returning this year.
Bringing horse racing back to a town was not easy, Sherman said.
“It takes a dedicated group to do it,” Sherman said. “With horsemen doing it themselves shows that they’re very dedicated to keeping racing going in their community.”
So far this summer, there are six days of racing planned in Great Falls, July 23-25 and July 30-Aug. 1, and two days in Missoula, Aug. 13 and Aug. 14. Billings will have two days of racing at Yellowstone Downs, Aug. 28 and Aug. 29.
To contact the All Breed Turf Club about the races, send an e-mail to [email protected] or call 406-249-6699.
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