POCATELLO – Pocatello Downs kicks off its horse racing season this weekend, and horsemen say a changing of the guard has been a big boost for the Sport of Kings in Bannock County.
The 2017 horse racing season at Pocatello Downs starts Sunday and continues each Sunday through May 21, with the season wrapping up on Memorial Day.
Dan Obray, president of Pocatello Downs, said the current Bannock County Commission worked with the horse-racing community to address issues that threatened the future of the sport in Southeast Idaho last year.
“Change is good,” Obray said. “The new commissioners have been doing their due diligence. They listened, and they asked questions.”
In June, race horse trainers were notified that stall leases at the Bannock County Event Center had been terminated and monthly stall rentals would no longer be available. The cost to board and train animals at the trackside venue increased from $40 per month for each horse to $15 per day, per horse.
Obray and his partner, Kyle Dahlke, have 18 horses at the event center. However, they moved their animals out shed row when the county announced the rate hike last year.
The commission’s announcement came after an animal cruelty case was exposed at the fairgrounds. Trainers Samantha Arave and Kristopher Fagan were each found guilty of two misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty in connection to 15 horses and a mule that were found in poor condition at the stables.
Obray said rental contracts were reinstated in September 2016, and the current rate for stall rentals in shed row is $65 per month for each animal. But, he said, with the increase came more support and better communication with county officials.
“We appreciate the change in attitude,” Obray said.
The stalls in shed row are provided free of charge for race horse trainers from April through the racing season in May. However, Obray said trainers were able to move in March 1, and in exchange Pocatello Downs maintains the dirt racetrack.
“There has been a complete turnaround with the new commission,” Obray said. “If we’ve needed anything, they’ve been more than willing to help.”
Obray said the Idaho Racing Commission will be at the Bannock County Events Center on Saturday to begin the licensing process and to celebrate the season opening, horsemen will be treated to Mammoth Burgers, compliments of Pocatello Downs.
An Eastern Idaho State Fair favorite, Mammoth Burgers will provide concessions during the 2017 racing season, and Pocatello Downs will operate its own beer sales at the venue.
About 75 race horses were being kept at the event center this weekend, but Obray said shed row will be full when racing gets underway next week.
Pocatello Downs will host the Bank of America Challenge Championship this season with trial set for May 14 and finals on May 29. Obray said the Fort Hall Casino put up half the winnings, which is expected to be $40,000.
Indian Relay Racing is also scheduled during the finals on Memorial Day.
Del Mark, who signed on as the events and promotions manager at the Bannock County Event Center on March 30, said that other improvement at the facility include new paddocks and upgrades to the outdoor arena.
For a complete racing schedule or for more information about Pocatello Downs, click here. For ticket information for the Bannock County Bull Ball and Testicle Festival on July 1 and a complete schedule of events at the venue, click here.
“It’s been a work in progress,” Mark said.
A horse-racing fan and a former race horse owner, Mark said he’ll be at the track on race day.
Mark said more than 450 events are planned at the event center this summer.
State junior and high and high school rodeo finals get under way this month and the Bannock County Bull Ball and Testicle Festival set for July 1.
The event will feature 38 bull riders and the Testicle Festival, sponsored by KZBQ FM 93.9, will follow. A concert with Brody Fitch will close the day-long event.
Concessions were another source of contention at the event center in 2016.
In April 2016 the county said it had contracted with Utah-based Diamond Concessions to handle all concessions at the event center.
That announcement led the POW*MIA Awareness Rally and Motorcycle Rodeo to move its annual event to the Pocatello Raceway last year. Spokeswoman Heidi Young said at that time, under the new contract, the group would receive no portion of beer or concession sales, but would be limited solely to revenue generated through gate sales.
Bannock County Commissioner Terrel Tovey said the county ended its contract with Diamond Concessions in September 2016 and is now looking to hire local businesses to provide event specific concessions at the facility.
“Some events want to be able to have more than one concession, some events don’t want any,” Tovey said. “We are working to be able to provide more options at the event center. If we want to make things better, we have to listen.”
Natalia Hepworth, EastIdahoNews.com
Nate Eaton, EastIdahoNews.com