MONTROSE — Miguel Suarez was just 14 when the gates swung open to his career in horse racing. Five years later the small, wirily thin jockey has earned the respect from his fellow Montrose riders, all of whom were racing last weekend in front of hundreds of spectators on one of the oldest tracks in the state.
Racing fans of all ages watched the action at the Montrose County Fairgrounds this past weekend, at the first meet of the Black Canyon Horse Racing Association 2013 season. About a dozen races were held on the same track that first hosted racing back in 1881, seven years before the town was officially formed in 1888.
Sprint races of 220-yards made up a majority of the schedule, 5/8-of-a-mile and 660-yard races were also held over each afternoon. The scene at times resembled a family reunion for riders, trainers and owners hanging around the stable area.
Suarez said his lifelong passion for working with and riding horses everyday has become his way of life. He said the adrenaline is what most attracts him to the sport where split seconds separate victory from possible serious injury.
"I don't even think about it, I just whistle and push them and try to get them to the end and win,” he said. “The faster you go the better. We try to watch out for ourselves as well as other jockeys.
Suarez has raced professionally at larger tracks in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and the Front Range of Colorado.
He remembers watching and learning to ride from his older friend, 23-year-old Juan Estrada of Montrose. Suarez, who used to live with Estrada, would tag along to races until he was old enough to ride competitively at 14.
Estrada said Suarez was quickly successful, which made a lot of older jockeys angry, forcing Estrada to become a protective figure over Suarez.
"When (Suarez) started riding there were some other jockeys that starting grinding on him because he started winning and they would talk trash. And I don't like that,” Estrada said. “I'm not going to risk my life for $50. Every time I would ride against him I would try and stay with him so no one would do anything stupid against him, because he was barely learning. Now he knows what he's doing.”
Estrada said he learned to race from his older brother Francisco, and his father, Javier, both of whom raced in Montrose years ago. The bloodline of family racers began with Estrada's grandfather Antonio, who raced quarter horses and thoroughbreds in Mexico.
Suarez said his first win was at the Montrose track with a two-year-old quarter horse owned by John Hawks, who also is an organizer with the Black Canyon Horse Racing Association. Hawks, who was present during the races last weekend, said besides the racing he had hoped the grandstands would reflect the level of local support for the organization and its efforts to keep racing at the fairgrounds.
Montrose brothers, 24-year-old Juan Ramirez and 21-year-old Oscar Ramirez, represent the their family's third generation of horse racing in Montrose. Racing started in their family back in the 1880s and each agrees the degree of competitiveness between grows with each passing year.
"It's fun," Juan said smiling. "It can get pretty competitive, we usually will wager a 12 pack of soda on a race."
"Just the adrenaline of trying to beat (Juan) is funnest part," Oscar said.
The Montrose track is part of the “Bush Track Circuit,” a partnership joining Ridgway, Gunnison and Norwood to promote western-themed entertainment and created over a hundred years ago. One of the state’s oldest racing circuits, the Bush Track Circuit has drawn riders and horses from across the western United States.
The future of racing in Ridgway remains uncertain, according to Ridgway Fair and Rodeo official Lori Howard. Racing was planned for July 6. But since the grandstands at the Ridgway track were recently condemned racing has been been put on hold. Howard said she hopes enough community support will be demonstrated at a meeting of the Ouray Board of County Commissioners on July 2 to find a way to rebuild the grandstands and schedule racing in the near future.
Upcoming race dates at the Montrose County Fairgrounds are scheduled for Saturday July 20 and September 7 and 8.