MONTROSE — The track at the Montrose Fairgrounds has a long history of horse racing, a history that until recently had all but died out, but will soon come back to life.
Thanks to Jerry Sutherlan and a handful of other volunteers from the Black Canyon Racing Association, the track has been totally refurbished and the historic track will host a two-day meet on Sept. 11-12.
The track at the fairgrounds held one race about six years ago, but it’s been 10 years since the track hosted a meet of any size, Sutherlan said, and it’s taken two years of hard manual labor to get the track back to top racing form.
The meet will include six races per day, with one featured race each day for an added purse. Races start at 1 p.m. both days. The first race each day is a 220-yard sprint for quarterhorses, followed by a three-eighths mile race, also for quarterhorses. Next will be a five-eighths mile race for quarterhorses and thoroughbreds, followed by a half-mile plus 70 yards for thoroughbreds, followed by an 870-yard thoroughbred race. Thoroughbreds run longer races, Sutherlan said, and most of the horses will be two- and three-year-olds.
“We will also offer a mile race, but I’m not sure if we’ll get enough entries,” he said.
The fairgrounds is a multi-use facility, and at the county’s urging, the association took on the tasks of getting the dilapidated track back up to standards, which involved replacing and re-welding fencing, repairing the track, and even picking up small rocks by hand all along its surface.
The fairgrounds’ race track was once part of a regional racing circuit that still exists and includes tracks in Norwood, Ridgway and Gunnison, where racers travel to each different location every two weeks during the summer months.
The racing association originally planned a race in June to be part of the circuit once more, Sutherlan said, but decided to delay because of some last minute details with the track. He said Montrose track will again be part of the regional racing circuit each summer now that the track is up to speed.
“Basically our goal is to bring more races next year and more than just one race meet,” he said.
The track at the fairgrounds is a bush track, Sutherlan explained, as opposed to a registered track, which allows pari-mutuel wagering. And like the bush leagues in baseball, it’s on bush tracks that young racehorses get valuable racing experience, he says.
“It gives us a chance to do hands-on training, rather than send them to Albuquerque or Denver.”
The track will attract both locals and visitors, and the county will benefit as well, he said.
“We’ll pay monthly stall rentals and help with the upkeep. We want to make this the crown jewel of the community.”
The track, which has been used for races for more than 100 years, is a legacy from our forefathers to the people of Montrose, said Valerie Hudson of the Montrose County Historical Association.
The first race meet was held Sept. 19-21, 1889, at the second Montrose County Fair. The historical association’s copy of the program from that day states that the first races are “free for all, half-mile heats, best two in three” with purses of $50 for first place and $25 for second. Next was a 660-yard race “just for cowboys, race horses barred” with $40 to the winner and $20 to second place.
Because of the cost of repairing the track, the purses for this year’s races won’t be as large as next year’s, Sutherlan said, but the purse also depends on the number of horses that show up for each race. Registration isn’t until the day before the races start, when the horses are physically here, but calls have come horse breeders and racers from all over Colorado as well as Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, and he’s expecting at least 60 head.
“We have to have everybody on the ground and make sure the horse made it so they don’t scratch out of the race, and we only have so many distances we can run,” he said.
Not only does Montrose County have a long history with horse racing, Sutherlan said, it also is the birthplace of Anna Lee Aldred, a member of the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and the first woman in the United States to obtain a professional jockey’s license. The New York Times published an Associated Press article on Aldred after her death at Valley Manor Nursing Home in Montrose on June 12, 2006 at the age of 85.
Born in 1921, Aldred won her first pony race at the fairgrounds’ track at the age of six. In 1939, she received her professional jockey’s license from Agua Caliente Racetrack in Mexico, according to the article, and the license, a small wooden badge, is on display at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.
It’s that kind of heritage the races want to keep alive, Hudson said, and to recognize both the historic and present day contributions of horse racing that the “new” track will bring back.
“In the early part of the century this track was a legacy to the people of Montrose and should be left in perpetuity,” she said. “We have wonderful parks, but we are ag-based.”
Ag-based kids from 4-H clubs and other vendors will have food and drinks for sale, and the races, with free admission, will be good family fun, organizers promise.
The action will be nonstop, since between races local rancher Heidi Peterson will put on “team ranch sorting,” where riders on teams have to herd cattle from one pen to the next pen. It gets complicated because each bovine will have a number on its back, and the cows must be herded in numerical order, starting with a number the announcer calls out, all on a 60-second clock. Teams with the fastest times and most cattle win, she said, and competition is open to any age, “as long as they have a horse.” Teams are selected by drawing names from a hat, but the deadline to enter ranch sorting is only a couple of days away, on Sept. 4. “It’s fun to watch, and with only a 60-second time limit, it runs real quick, and gets pretty fast and furious,” Peterson said.
Peterson said the horseback team sport has gained a lot of popularity in the last few years, and she hosts a monthly ranch sorting at her ranch on Spring Creek Road.
Peterson is a life-long horsewoman, and she too recalled Anna Lee Aldred’s contribution to sport of horse racing in Montrose.
“It’s too bad she couldn’t be here,” she said.
A display booth at the fairgrounds will tell the history of horse racing in Montrose, and people are encouraged to bring their memorabilia from earlier meets.
“Anything on the historical side, like old win pictures,” Sutherlan said. “These races have been going on for 122 years, and there has to be some old time memorabilia, and we would like to display it during the races.”
To learn more about the September 11-12 meet, call Jerry Sutherlan at 970 749-5841. To learn more about the team ranch sorting competition, call Heidi Peterson at 602 859-6323.