Post time again in Montrose
MONTROSE — A large group of quarter horses, decked out in colorful saddles and masks, mounted with small jockeys dressed in deep blues, reds and yellows, formed a parade line in front of the large grandstand.
Auctioneers called out with small dollar amounts and scanned the crowd looking for any takers. A $2 options table was also set up for anybody with an itch to bet.
Following the bidding, the horses marched toward the starting gate some 200 yards down the track. Behind the starting chutes, a couple of jockeys were thrown from their mounts, the youth and immaturity of the 2-year-olds evident while men tried to push them into the starting gates.
With a pull of a steel lever, the horses were released, the finish line, clearly in their sights. The jockeys screamed and yelled from their saddles, urging the animals to sprint. Those left lagging were consumed quickly by dust.
The hoof-stomping sounds of horse racing have returned to Montrose after more than a decade, and hundreds of spectators descended on the Montrose County Fairgrounds on Saturday and Sunday to watch dozens of horses compete in various races.
Six races of varying lengths were held each day, from 220-yard sprints to runs of three-eighths and five-eighths of a mile.
Admission was free and those attending quickly filled the grandstands finding relief from the hot sun. A ranch sorting competition occupied the time between races.
The 220-yard races take about 11 seconds. The energy of the crowd intensifies as the horses galloped by, leaving a huge plume of dirt hanging in the air.
The racing is nearly unchanged from what area residents experienced when it started in Montrose back in the 1880s. The track, still the original half-mile oval, once sat with broken rails, weeds and rocks. That was until members of local racing associations and county employees revitalized the track. The idea was simple: Bring back racing that for so many decades defined this area and its people.
John Hawks of the Black Canyon Racing Association inspected track conditions last Tuesday afternoon. He has been with the racing association since 1972 and is proud that horse racing has returned to Montrose.
“We’ve done a lot of work, a lot of work,” Hawks said.
The last time Hawks could recall formal racing in Montrose was 1998. Since then, he said, some small racing events have been held, but nothing on a large scale.
Hawks, a Montrose native, has donated his time to the race track for many years. He said the old steel rails that make up the track boundaries are former steel stems used in drilling applications.
“The track rails were once made of wood,” Hawks said, adding he and his sons in 1972 gathered the used stems and got them cut, welded and put them into the ground with the use of county equipment.
For years the track and rails were not maintained, and they began to rust and fall apart. Now they sit ready and freshly painted.
Hawks said in addition to the rails, the association has spent a lot of time working the dirt into a surface suitable for racing.
“We had to disk the track many times,” he said. “And we picked out about a million rocks.”
The track is 50 feet wide and sits in front of new grandstands built nearly a decade ago.
The track was once part of a small regional racing circuit that still exists and includes tracks in Norwood, Ridgway and Gunnison. Decades ago, racers traveled to each location every two weeks during the summer.
President William Howard Taft attended races in Montrose in the early 1900s, around the time the Gunnison Tunnel was completed.
To Jerry Sutherlin, a member of the racing association, the thought of Montrose rejoining the circuit puts a smile on his face.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “This was a large part of our history.”
“We’re working to bring the racing back for good,” he added.
Sutherlin said the relationship between the organization and the Montrose County Commission was strained for many years. As a result, the track sat unmaintained.
“Our relationship with the county has really improved,” Hawks said.
“We’ve been very supportive,” Commissioner David White said. “My attitude was: ‘Geez, let’s start over again with a clean sheet of paper.’ “
Sutherlin and White agreed that returning horse racing to Montrose could help the local economy and bring entertainment value to the fairgrounds.
The pace of the weekend’s event was slow. Nearly an hour passed between races as people came and went from the grandstand waiting for the next event.
“It’s the first time in a decade that we’ve had these races, so we’re trying to get everything worked out,” a voice over the public-address system said.
Sutherlin said the races in the past consisted primarily of cowboys. He said the culture has changed, and a lot more riders, trainers and owners are Spanish-speaking.
“We respect that. They’re a part of the culture around here, and it’s made the sport stronger and will help it survive in the future,” Sutherlin said.
The next weekend of racing will be determined at a later date. Sutherlin said all of the racing organizations around the area will get together with county officials to see what the next step will be.