Evanston, Wyo. • The horses were off and running again Saturday at Wyoming Downs, thrilling and disappointing bettors here for the first time in four years.
Hundreds of quarter horse and thoroughbred enthusiasts turned out for Evanston's racing revival, and as many or more are expected Sunday when pari-mutuel bets can be placed on eight more races, starting at 1:30 p.m.
Based on license plates in the track's gravel parking lot, the crowd was split almost evenly between Utahns and Wyomingites, with a few people thrown in from Idaho, Nevada and Colorado. That wasn't at all a surprise, given Evanston's proximity to the Wasatch Front with its known collection of horse breeders, trainers and bettors.
"The Utah folks are big horse-racing fanatics, and this is the closest place they can come for pari-mutuel betting," said Jorge Estrada Jr., who made a 14-hour drive from Arizona to serve as a steward at the weekend races, the first since Wyoming Downs shut down in 2009 after 25 years of racing.
John and Kris Schulist drove from their home in Draper, Utah, to get in on the action. A retail manager for Petco Animal Supplies, he has loved horse racing since his days as a boy in suburban Chicago, where he rode his bike to the Arlington Heights, Ill., track.
"Horse racing is horse racing. There's a winner in every race," said Schulist, dressed like his wife in bright red University of Utah colors. "You get rewarded if you pick right. If you're wrong, you get another chance in 20 minutes."
Like the Schulists, Taylorsville resident Shauna Raso's enthusiasm for horse racing has been stoked by opportunities to see big-time races like the Kentucky Derby. Wyoming Downs isn't Churchill Downs, Raso admitted during her first trip to the Evanston track, but it has a distinct charm.
"It's a lot more laid back, a lot more family friendly," she noted, laughing about hearing little kids recommending picks for their parents based on a horse's colors. "I really hope they make a go of it here."
Track announcer John Petty repeatedly said a full season of racing is projected for 2014, now that new track owner Eric Nelson has gotten Wyoming Downs operating again.
"I'm pleased with the way things are coming together. It shows there is a future for horse racing," added Wyoming Pari-Mutuel Commission Executive Director Charles Moore.
He hailed the reopening of Wyoming Downs as an extension of the momentum generated when Eugene Joyce, son of former Wyoming Downs owner Joe Joyce, brought Sweetwater Downs back online in Rock Springs in 2011. Joyce also received state permission then to operate off-track betting sites in Evanston and Rock Springs, expanding exposure to the sport.
Standing at the front row of the grandstand chatting with boyhood friend Homer Faust, 88, of Coalville, Utah, quarter horse owner Lawrence Blonquist, of Farmington, Utah, was pleased to be back at the track Saturday.
"If Utah has any horse-racing hopes, it's going to be Wyoming that keeps it going," said Blonquist, who was accompanied by his son, granddaughter and 3-year-old great-grandson, Theodore.
The little one already likes horses, said his mom, Shanna Alexander, a barrel racer who grew up riding Grandpa Blonquist's horses. Being at Wyoming Downs "brings back a lot of memories," she said. "We were up here just about every weekend in the summer when I was growing up."
For race steward Estrada, tracks have an ambiance whose appeal goes back beyond the country's founding.
"Horse racing is at America's heart," he said. "It's like rodeo or any other livestock event. It's part of the American West. It's diminishing, but no one wants it to go away."
Results, Racing today
Quarterhorses and thoroughbreds will compete in eight more races Sunday at Wyoming Down track in Evanston, starting at 1:30 p.m.