Racing was gone, the racetrack was going.
When it came time three years ago for Missoula County and its fairgrounds staff to wipe their hands clean of horse racing, Toni Hinton got a call.
“They said come down and if you want any of this race stuff, we’ve got it in a pile. Take what you want, and whatever you don’t want, we’re going to throw it away," Hinton said.
Hinton’s horse racing roots go back almost 50 years. She was 13 when Don and Virginia Hinton bought their first race horse, and in her 20s when she got her training license.
Hers was the face of the Western Montana Turf Club that she and husband, Jim Johnson, helped establish in 1999. If anyone was going to rescue and save the voluminous pile of Missoula “race stuff” it was going to be Hinton, who had salvaged for safe-keeping some items and records from the jockey room and parimutuel building at the fairgrounds in the years following the last races at the Western Montana Fair in 2010.
Hinton and Johnson stocked the barn behind their home on South Seventh Street West with boxes of jockey silks and saddle cloths, photo albums and posters, winners' blankets, race programs and paper files, with no clear idea what to do with it all.
“It’s not doing any good being stored here,” Johnson said. “Someday our kids are going to have to go through this stuff, and it’ll all go into the dump anyway.”
On Wednesday, Ted Hughes helped solve their dilemma.
The curator of the county’s Historical Museum at Fort Missoula combed through what he immediately recognized as a valuable historic collection and drove away with a treasure trove.
Brenda Wahler of Helena, whose book “Montana Horse Racing: A History” was released by the History Press last month, picked through it too. She was in town for a book presentation that evening at Fact and Fiction.
Wahler had tapped Hinton’s institutional knowledge of Missoula racing for her book last year and had carted a couple of totes of racing paraphernalia back to Helena for a delighted Montana Historical Society Museum. She took another load back to the Capital City this week.
“We have very little (horse racing) material in the collection, so we’re definitely interested,” Kendra Newhall, registrar at the state museum, said Thursday.
Hughes made the short drive over from the Fort Missoula museum, which also has (or had) almost nothing relating to horse racing.
“It’s the sort of collection we’re looking for, that’s got a coherent, complete story to it and that’s related to a specific piece of Missoula County’s history,” he said.
As Wahler points out, that racing history presumably began when the first horses arrived in western Montana from the West Coast by 1670. The first account was recorded in 1806, when the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition staged races with their Indian hosts at Travelers’ Rest near Lolo.
According to Stan Cohen’s “Western Montana Fair: A Pictorial History,” the first race meet was 70 years later, when prominent Missoula pioneers with names like Higgins, Worden, Eddy and Rankin built a fairgrounds across Russell Street from the current one. It included a one-mile race track.
The first races were probably run there in October 1876 as the nation’s centennial celebration wound down. It would have been a local affair. No railroad ran through Missoula until 1883.
Local racing followed the fortunes of the fairs, which were sporadic at three different sites over the next 75 years or so.
Modern horse racing returned in 1955, a year after the county fair was revived following a hiatus since World War II. It quickly became a staple of August fairs and remained so until 2006.
The Missoulian colored its account of the first day of that 1955 meet with a timeless description on Aug. 19:
“The fairgrounds crowd, under a blazing sun, saw the horses put forth their best effort in a swirl of dust and streaming tails in every race, with the riders using their bats and climbing necks in an effort to get in front and stay there.”
“All this does to me is bring back memories.”
Bill Nooney is 89. He didn’t get into the racing game until middle age, when he bought a horse from a fellow Missoulian, legendary trainer Dale Bagnell. In 1981, the mare had a foal named Beautiful Habitat, who was very fast. Nooney was hooked.
He chaired the Montana Racing Commission and was instrumental in bringing simulcast racing to the state. But he never donned jockey silks until Wednesday at Hinton’s barn. Nooney was browsing through the tables, totes and years in Hinton’s barn as Hughes and Wahler divided the booty. He was persuaded to try on for size a red No. 1 shirt and helmet. They fit fine.
Like most horsemen, Nooney has a stash of memorabilia himself, including bevies of win photos and race videos. Hughes knows there’s plenty more horse racing artifacts out there, and the Fort Missoula museum is open to further donations.
“We don’t want to duplicate things, but if people have a story of their own that they can add to this bigger story, we’d welcome it,” he said.
Ultimately, it’ll make for a compelling exhibit.
“We’re a little booked out for 18 months or a couple of years, but down the road, yeah,” said Hughes.
The former registrar at the Missoula Arts Museum, Hughes was especially drawn to the colors of the blankets and blinkers and the jockey and saddle garb of racing.
“I’ve got that artsy-fartsy side,” he quipped.
Wahler said standardized race colors were probably established by statute when the Montana Board of Horse Racing was created in the mid-1960s. Since then, at all state-sanctioned race meets, the jockey and horse that draw the 1-3 post positions have worn red, white and blue, respectively. Subsequent positions are yellow, black, orange, purple and, No. 8’s green.
Hinton piled up half a dozen sets of colors, old and new, on a table Wednesday. She set aside some of the newer ones to keep, in the fond hope they may be useful again should something come out of the 2021 Montana Legislature that makes horse racing viable again. These days there are only two meets in Montana, a short one in Miles City in May and a growing one in Great Falls in July.
The Western Montana Turf Club spent down its last funds last year in Great Falls, securing VIP boxes at the races for its members and boosters. The turf club is history, but Hinton is secretary of the Montana Racehorse Owners and Breeders Coalition, a group formed in 2018 to rally support for resurrecting live horse racing.
“I cannot give up,” she said.
Hers was among the many passionate voices who fought unsuccessfully to keep racing alive in Missoula over the past 15 years.
Hinton was teary-eyed on the October day in 2016 following a meeting downtown when county commissioners approved a fairgrounds plan that called for the removal of the racetrack. That removal happened in 2018.
“I loved it,” Hinton said this week of the horse racing life. “It was in Missoula’s heart, and I didn’t have the heart to let it go. I’m so excited that somebody is going to be able to keep it to remember the history of our industry.”
Still, by Wednesday evening she couldn’t shake an empty feeling.
“I enjoyed sending the stuff to the museums. It was a good thing for us to do,” she said in a text to the Missoulian. “But it was obvious that we all felt a loss. The barn door is now closed.”