MONTROSE – Last year, the Montrose County Fairgrounds hosted bush-track horse racing for the first time in almost a decade. This year the races are back, and take place June 18-19.
Valerie Hudson, secretary of the Black Canyon Horse Racing Association, said the sport had all but died out in Montrose before last year, but with renewed support, it's here to stay.
“The Board of County Commissioners has been very supportive of efforts and want us to continue,” Hudson said. “That wasn’t the case ten years ago.”
Even a couple of years ago there was talk of tearing up the track, Hudson said, “But now, our heritage has been preserved.”
That preservation comes in the form of improvements to the track, with help from volunteers from the horse-racing association and county staff.
Hudson said the starting gate for the races was improved with more sand and leveling where the horses will be taking off.
“We’ve had a year or two to work on the track, doing things like picking up rocks, and the Fairgrounds crews help,” she said.
The saddle paddock has also been moved so that the riders are more visible to crowds in the grandstands, she said. Another improvement is the installation of a “hot walker,” where the horses can cool down.
“We’re hoping to add more stalls next year, and slowly but surely the improvements are happening,” she said. Improvements to the track will also make it more viable for training race horses, Hudson said.
The Montrose track is part of a circuit that includes Norwood, Gunnison and Ridgway, she said.
“With four tracks in our region where horses can compete; it also sustains longer training times and in the end produces animals that are stronger,” she said. “They’ll have continuity and get the foundation of exercise they need.”
Post time is 1 p.m. each day, with an admission price of $2, Hudson said. Race programs are $3, she said, and the goal is to keep prices low so the races can be a family affair.
The track will see at least six races each day, she said, of varying lengths, from a 220 yard sprint to three-eighths and five-eighths mile runs.
This year’s races will also have some female jockeys, Hudson said, carrying on a tradition started by Clara Hawks, one of the early female jockeys on the bush track circuit, who was the mother of John Hawks, president of the board of the Black Canyon Horse Racing Association.
“Clara used to ride from Blue Mesa to Gunnison and compete on the same horse,” she said.
“We should sustain this legacy. We have lots of nice parks, but the Fairgrounds is where we have to remember where our heritage came from, from ranches and livestock.”
For many years, the bush-track races at the Fairgrounds were run by Ken and Josie Fields, Hudson said, but Ken Fields passed away last year.
“We want to keep in memory that these are the people who sustained the races for quite a while and we hope to do the same,” she said.