Race fans champing at the bit
MONTROSE — Horse racing is continuing its thunderous comeback across the Western Slope as more and more dates are being added to accommodate large crowds that want to see people and ponies compete.
In Montrose on Saturday, six races featured 52 horse and jockey teams in a number of Calcutta and small-betting fields. Today, six more races are scheduled, with action starting at 1 p.m. at the Montrose County Fairgrounds.
Race organizers are pleased to see interest has returned to the sport as dates in Ridgway, Gunnison and Norwood have been confirmed for the months ahead.
Racing in those communities began more than a hundred years ago and was part of the Bush Track Circuit, a racing circuit promoting Western-themed entertainment that drew riders and horses from across the western United States.
In Montrose, the earliest known races were in 1881, seven years before the town officially formed in 1888. American Indians would race their horses along with cowboys and Mexican charros on the same track used today.
Organized racing in Montrose fell apart after 1998 when track conditions and infrastructure deteriorated. Local racing organizations successfully resurrected the event last September, proclaiming horse racing was part of the area’s heritage and must be preserved.
“This is the result of the county and some race horsemen working together,” Black Canyon Racing Association organizer Jerry Sutherlin said.
Sutherlin said organizers used a “if you build it, they will come” attitude to not only fill seats in the grandstands but draw horses and trainers to the area.
“A lot of riders train on this track. It’s a chance for them to see if they have a horse who’s worth something that could go on to bigger races. This is like the farm leagues of baseball, but for horse racing,” Sutherlin said.
Olathe jockey Alberto Romero said it takes years of experience to get comfortable sprinting horses down a track.
“It’s hard to explain,” Romero said. “It happens so fast, it’s reactionary … you control the horse through the reins.”
Fellow jockey Angel Burruel said each horse breaks from the gates and reaches top speed of nearly 35 mph in less than three strides.
“The reaction is instantaneous,” Burruel said. “You’re sitting in the cage with the horse, your heart’s pounding, your mouth is dry, and in a matter of seconds, you’re at top speed.
On Saturday, Romero won the first and third 220-yard races, waving his hand in the air to the crowd each time he crossed the finish line.
Each 220-yard race takes about 11 seconds. The standing crowd cheers, with some shielding their faces from the dirt and mud, which hangs in the air each time the horses pass.
A few jockeys were tossed from their mounts, and one horse escaped to run loose in the parking lot. No one was injured.
“This is what we need. This is our heritage,” Burruel said.