Montana State Fairgrounds, Great Falls MT, Jun 22

Distance: 213 miles
Drive time: 3.5 hours
Construction zones: 0
Authority vehicles spotted: 0
Times lost: 0
Miles of road with no particular speed limit: > 200

Yes, I know I visited this track two years ago and wrote about it on this List then, but I'm doing it again. Because this is A Racetrack On The Bubble, and might not be here to write about next year.

Up til this year the Montana State Fair Meet had been run by the City of Great Falls, but years of successive losses, including $80,000 in 1996, forced the city fathers to conclude that they needed to get out of the racing business, and any kind of live racing this year was in serious jeopardy.

Enter the Race Track Management Group, headed up by three individuals with deep roots and strong interests in Montana horse racing, who negotiated a $1 lease of the track facilities, and who are making a strong go at keeping racing alive in Great Falls. The president of RTMG, Eric Ray, has made it clear, however - if the experiment isn't successful this year, from a fan interest standpoint, there will be no next year.

RTMG is doing all it can: the stretch was lengthened to allow for longer quarter horse races to attract a larger quarter horse population, more horsemen and horses were recruited to have a bigger backside population, prices were lowered somewhat, and a concerted publicity effort is being made to get people off their butts and away from the keno machines, and out to the track.

It seems like everyone in Great Falls is making an effort to keep racing alive. After each racing day, there is a story about the feature race of the day in the sports pages of the Tribune. With pictures. The feature race is covered on the sports segment of the 10:00 pm TV news. There have been numerous news pieces on the track and the RTMG in the Tribune. On Sunday morning AM radio there was a segment on the racing coming up that afternoon. On Sunday night's 10:00 pm TV news there was a long segment on Eric Ray and the RTMG which I'd observed being filmed that day (and even managed to get into, in a quick background shot). On Monday morning, June 23, there was more horse racing coverage in the Great Falls Tribune than I normally see in the Chicago Tribune in a week: A beautiful front sports page photo from the feature race, an inside article about the feature and the day's events, and another picture, an article about Sharp Cat's defeat in her most recent race, and a long piece about Silver Charm's return to Kentucky and possible future plans. So they're trying, they really are.

Yet I was a little leery about the daily handles, and what they might be saying about the shaky future. The first week I was in Montana, the Saturday and Sunday handles had only been ~$57,000 per day. Yet this second weekend, the total handle was over $155,000 for the weekend, with $89,000 of that coming on the Sunday I was in attendance. Thanks to me, of course. ;-) So hopefully, the Great Falls betting public is tuning in, the RTMG meet will be a success this year, and Great Falls will have live racing for years to come.

I arrived about 45 minutes before the 1:00 pm post, and there were about 300 cars in the parking lot (okay, 100 of them were pickups), and the inside crowd swelled to maybe 500 people as the day went on - a considerably bigger crowd than when I'd been at GF two years ago.

Parking: free. Admission: $1.00 (ladies free on Sundays). Program: $3.00. $1.00 draft beer and $.50 hot dogs through the 3rd race. Unfortunately the $1.00 beer was Bud Light, so I only had one of those. Regular beer cost: $2.00/can, and normal hotdog price: $2.25. Lots of other food items and full bar service available. Simulcast wagering from Emerald Downs. A decent little gift shop but they didn't really have anything I wanted to buy. Very friendly concessions and mutuel staff. Nice warm weather with a bit of breeze, clouding over and getting cooler toward the end of the day.

Unfortunately, there is only one copper king in Montana these days, and as far as I know, he doesn't breed racehorses, so the Montana-breds I got to watch racing on this day were maybe a step or two down from the Montana horses of Spokane's generation. But there were a lot of horses from other meets as well: the obligatory bunch who'd run at Turf Paradise over the winter, some down from various Canadian tracks, a few from Washington and California, one from New Mexico, one from Los Alamitos - but most from around Montana, who'd been running at Metrapark in Billings last year, and at Kalispell, and at Miles City, and at Helena, and so on. I even got to see Cowboy Cadillac run, the Montana flash, who'd won a ton of money as a 2yo, and then appeared as a 3yo down at Turf Paradise over the winter, only to get thumped by my own German Brown in the Rattlesnake Stakes in January, and in another TuP race or two, before heading back to Montana. This day he was in one of the heats for the upcoming Lewis & Clark Stakes, and he qualified, so good luck to him and his connections.

Great Falls isn't big enough for the DRF to bother with, so the pp's in the track program were cobbled together from DRF pp's from recognized tracks, Montana State Fair records, and Montana pp's from some service called TruForm Inc. in Billings. I give TruForm all the credit in the world for trying to keep track of all the pp's in places like Miles City and Kalispell, but man - there were a lot of errors in these pp's (two geldings had run in races restricted to fillies and mares, for instance). Still - not big enough errors to truly detract from the experience, unless one were trying to make pace and speed numbers, which I wasn't. OTOH - this program had the most complete list of North American race meets I've ever seen, and the complete schedule of Montana race meets, so it was well worth the $3.00 as a reference piece.

The Sunday card consisted of 12 races, with fields of 8 horses in most. I did okay in the early going, only to backslide as the $2.00 cans of Rainier did their work, and finished at -$16.40 for the day. Most all of these were TB races, with one QH event thrown in. The track is (I think) a 4f bullring, and most races were run at 5f +80 yds, and 7f. Purses ran $1500 for $2500 claimers, $1400 for maiden allowances, $1900 for the $10k claiming QH, up to $2100 for the feature race of the day, an N4X allowance.

The leading jockeys kicked big butt on the day, with Scott Bergsrud scoring a quintuple, Wayne Freeman a triple, and Clay Dunbar a double. One could have made big money on the day by just betting Scott Bergsrud, I realized - after the card was over. As noted two years ago, this is a hefty jock colony, with weights commonly up to 125 lbs. In yet another twist on the color coding scheme, silks corresponded to saddlecloth colors, but had a little flair to them - not the simple pastels of some of the Canadian tracks, but multicolors with the primary color being the same as the saddlecloth.

The one pool I wrote down was 796/579/534 WPS, 2752 tri, 340 ex. This brings up an interesting point - in a couple of races, no one picked the right exacta, but there was always a tri winner. The crowds at these smaller tracks seem to hammer the tris. The other interesting thing was what I had been beginning to suspect throughout the McChump of The North Tour - forget about shopping for value at these tracks. The odds change too fast. Just pick a likely winner and bet on it. You could go down and bet on a 40-1 horse and come back to find it 5-1, or pass up a 5/2 shot, only to see it go off at 8-1. Pretty interesting and, I think, a little truer test of one's handicapping skills. At least I learned a lot about my own habits from these little tracks. Mainly what bad habits I had picked up in the blind search for "value" at tracks where the pools were big enough to start thinking about such conceits.

The Montana State Fairgrounds is located on the West Side, between Central Ave. West and the Northwest Bypass, an easy drive from the airport for those who may wish to stop off there before they head off to Glacier Park. Racing Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 pm through August 3rd (when the circuit moves down to Billings, a town/track in a very similar predicament, and good luck to their new operators, the Yellowstone Racing Alliance of Billings).

I will admit I might be a little too emotionally attached to this particular track to give it a totally dispassionate McChump rating, but I had a great time there, and really enjoyed talking to the patrons, so I'm going to award it a flying two McChump thumbs up. Best of luck to the RTMG, and here's hoping things work out and there's still racing in Great Falls next time I'm in these parts.