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Kalispell horse racing staged by 2 residents, volunteer crew

Kalispell horse racing staged by 2 residents, volunteer crew

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Sunday's rain in Kalispell did its darnedest to ground them, but a couple of determined horse women pulled off the unthinkable: two days of locally produced horse racing almost entirely run by volunteers.

"If you're asking if it went smoothly ... I've never dealt with more chaos in my life," said Janis Schoepf. "But if that's what made it seem smooth for everyone else, that makes me feel really good."

Schoepf and horse training partner Debbie Cunnington did the bulk of the organizing, fundraising and racetrack managing for a group called, simply, Kalispell Race Meet, after others in the local turf club backed off.

In mid-June, a mere nine weeks before the races began, they made a successful application for Aug. 21 and 22 dates, the final days of the Northwest Montana Fair.

Some 3,500 people paid $5 to get into the fair and another $3 to watch the races on Saturday, the first day of horse races in Kalispell since 2005.

The eight-race card attracted a betting handle of $64,078. That dipped considerably on Sunday, to $37,315, when rains made the track so muddy that five-furlong thoroughbred races were downsized to the quarter-horse length of two furlongs, or 440 yards.

"We saw great, great crowds for Saturday, and the handle was about $14,000 more than I told (Schoepf) to expect, so Saturday was very, very successful," said Ryan Sherman, executive director of the Montana Board of Horse Racing. "Of course Sunday, with the rain, it wasn't as good, but overall, for it being the first time in five years, I thought it was a great meet."

Saturday's parimutuel handle of $8,000 a race was only slightly less than Missoula's average the previous weekend on a mud-plagued opening Friday, the first day of racing since 2006. The second day at the Western Montana Fair was off the charts - a record $149,119 for 11 races, or $13,556 per race.

"It bodes well when you can't walk through the grandstand in Missoula, and it was the same way at Kalispell on Saturday," Sherman said. "The stands were absolutely full on Saturday in Kalispell, both of them."

"It's good to see that we've opened the doors to the possibility of returning racing back to communities that haven't had it for several years," Sherman added. "We'll take a look at the end of the racing season and what our simulcast has done for us purse money-wise and see if we can't keep those opportunities going for the future."

***

Both Scheopf and Eric Spector, the president of Montana Downs, which put on the Missoula races, indicated they'd like to expand their meets from two days next year. Schoepf said her "personal goal" is for a weekend of racing in Kalispell over the Fourth of July.

"That's in the back of my mind. Nobody else is racing in the Northwest and I think it's a weekend when people are looking for things to do," she said.

Such a weekend would kick off the summer circuit in Montana, and racing would return to Kalispell for a couple of days during the fair.

"It would tie the whole circuit together," Schoepf said. "I think it would phenomenal."

Kalispell Race Meet rented the track from the county and rounded up $20,000 in sponsorships for purses and operations. The late application for dates excluded the track from receiving state funds for purses, as the other tracks in Montana receive, "so we had to wing all of that," Schoepf said.

An additional $25,000 organizers expected to receive from the Blackfeet tribe, which sponsored the popular Indian Relay Races after each day's race card, was not forthcoming. Schoepf said that money is still in dispute.

"But the bills are paid. That's a good feeling. It would be nice to have seed money for next year, but just given the fact that we're eligible for at least some of the purse money through the state next year is huge," she said.

A six-day meet at Great Falls and the two days at Missoula were both operated by Montana Downs, a subsidiary of a private California company. Schoepf said Kalispell Race Meet proved racing could be revived by a local group of race enthusiasts, and Sherman agreed.

"A dedicated group of horsemen such as themselves ... it shows if you want it bad enough you can do it," he said.

Everyone has their own measures of success, Schoepf said.

"My own personal satisfaction of it all, I guess, was that they never hauled a horse off in the ambulance, and I never picked up a rider with my people ambulance," she said. "That's huge. Even in mud, because that scared me."

Sherman said the short Kalispell meet gave horsemen a racing venue the week after Missoula, which followed the Great Falls meet by two weeks. The first of four consecutive weekends of racing at Yellowstone Downs in Billings begins Saturday.

"It kind of filled that early August to end-of-August void that we didn't have for the past couple of years. Now we can go right in to Billings," Sherman said. "We've kind of got a circuit that's starting to redevelop in the state, and that's very encouraging."

 

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