Evanston, Wyo. • The creatures now inhabiting Wyoming Downs have nothing to do with horse racing.
Giant owls nest in the beams of the grandstand roof. Ducks and geese live the good life on the sparkling blue infield pond and nearby Bear River. Deer and antelope regularly wander through the barn area, sharing the grasses with cattle and sheep, which also have found their way onto the property from nearby ranches.
Behind the locked gate and no-trespassing sign at the entrance to the racetrack’s parking lot, a tranquil ecosystem has evolved where horses once thundered down the stretch and fans cheered them to the finish line.
Once again, however, times are changing.
Wyoming Downs, which closed in 2009 after 25 years of racing, is being brought back to life.
Perhaps as soon as this fall but almost certainly by the summer of 2014, new owner Eric Nelson plans to resume live racing. He hopes to run an abbreviated weekend meet in September, followed by a 16- or 20-day meet next year.
Charlie Moore, the executive director of the Wyoming Parimutuel Commission, confirms that Nelson has applied for racing dates in September.
But will it happen?
“It always starts as a dream, and as you work through everything, it can become reality,” Moore said. “So we’ll have to see. Time will tell. But there is a lot of work to be done ... and the commission will be prudent. We will do our job to protect the human and equine participants in racing in our state.”
For Utah-based trainers like Chad Giles and Ron Moosman, the rebirth of Wyoming Downs is beyond critical. Many believe it will save the state’s horse industry by providing a close-to-home place to run.
“In Utah, we need Wyoming Downs,” Giles said. “Our horse market had gone down tremendously in the last few years — our sales and everything else. We definitely need Wyoming Downs to open again. I think it’s the only thing that can help our horse market.”
Moosman, who is based in Lindon, Utah, is even more adamant.
“Wyoming Downs isn’t in Utah,” he said, “but it’s absolutely vital to the horse business here. ... We’re down to a do-or-die situation.”
Giles had “30 or 40” quarter horses in training five years ago. Forty employees worked for him. But today, he trains 12 horses at his Stockton, Utah, facility with the help of his wife and son.
“It’s been a losing battle for owners,” Giles said. “A lot of them have just gotten out. They say, ‘It’s just not worth it.’ And I can’t tell them any different because I know it isn’t.”
The dire situation could be changing, though.
Along with Nelson’s willingness to shoulder the financial risk of reopening Wyoming Downs, the state also has stepped up with new “historic racing” legislation.
The bill, which passed in February, allows wagering terminals to be placed at racetracks and off-track betting sites throughout the state. Patrons can bet on the races shown on the terminals.
“It’s like slot-machine racing,” Nelson said. “To some extent, it will allow us to compete with the casinos in Wendover.”
If projections are correct, the historic racing bill will pump millions of dollars into the horse industry in Wyoming — and, by extension, Utah.
“It will have a profound, long-term effect on the success of Wyoming Downs,” Nelson said. “It helps us plan and move forward.”
Moosman is a believer.
“I’ve told people I think this is the biggest thing that’s happened here since I’ve been in the business,” he said. “This is going to save horse racing in Utah.”
The impact of the historic racing legislation on Utah racing already is showing, according to Moosman.
“For our breeding business — as far as the number of mares we’re breeding this year — this is as good as we’ve ever had,” Moosman said.
Plans also are under way for a new Wyoming Downs-based futurity. Organizers including Moosman and Eugene Joyce believe it could be worth $200,000 by 2015.
Joyce operates a live meet at Sweetwater Downs in Rock Springs as well as six off-track betting sites throughout Wyoming.
“It’s pure excitement for us right now,” Nelson said. “There’s no question the extra gaming available can make this a profitable endeavor and, of course, that’s been the challenge. There just hasn’t been enough revenue. But the longevity of the racetrack seems pretty secure at this time.”
Of course, plenty of work remains before the track is ready for racing.
That’s where Paul Nelson enters the picture.
He is a general contractor who lives in Utah County. He also is Eric Nelson’s brother.
Paul Nelson is in charge of restoring the physical plant at Wyoming Downs, which has been left to the animals and the elements for nearly four years.
“There’s a little bit of work to do,” he said. “But we’re excited. ... It’s a great facility and great asset.”
Wyoming Downs timeline
May 1985 • Richard Sims and his partners open a racetrack with a 5,000-seat grandstand about 10 miles north of Evanston, Wyo.
February 1989 • Heartland Federal Savings of Oklahoma begins foreclosure proceedings
April 1989 • Sold to Joe Joyce, a well-known and respected horse racing executive in New York and Chicago
September 1998 • Joyce retires and sells the racetrack to Las Vegas-based businessman Eric Nelson
September 2006 • Sold by Nelson to Wyoming Entertainment LLC and its chief operating officer, Eric Spector
July 2009 • Closed by Spector after a greatly reduced eight-day meet
December 2011 • Purchased at public auction by Nelson, the previous owner, for $450,000
February 2013 • Nelson announces plans to resume live racing after Wyoming Legislature passes historic racing bill