It’s been four years since Utahns who live along the Wasatch Front could jump in their car, drive less than three hours and bet on a live horse race.
That’s about to change.
Wyoming Downs owner Eric Nelson has announced he will reopen his race track — located just across the state line in Evanston — for a 16-day meet in 2014.
This is huge news for Utah breeders, owners, trainers and racing fans, whose options are severely limited because of their state’s moralistic stance on parimutuel wagering.
"Frankly, the Utah guys have been hanging on by their fingernails," says Eugene Joyce of Wyoming Horse Racing LLC. "Actually, I don’t know how they’ve done it. But I think — I hope — they’re now going to be rewarded for sticking with it."
Joyce’s family owned Wyoming Downs through most of the 1990s. Today, he operates four off-track betting sites around the state.
Since 2011, Joyce has also conducted live four-day race meets in Rock Springs — a 31/2-hour drive from downtown Salt Lake City.
Like Nelson at Wyoming Downs, Joyce wants to expand the Rock Springs meet and possibly start racing in Casper and Cheyenne in the not-too-distant future.
"We hope this is the beginning of a renaissance for racing in Wyoming and Utah," Joyce said.
He includes Utah in his optimistic forecast because "the majority of our participants — horsemen and fans — come from there."
Of course, Nelson and Joyce did not wake up one morning and suddenly decide it was a good time to invest millions of dollars in expanded operations.
The key to their decision was provided by the Wyoming Legislature, which passed a bill in February that allows "historic race" wagering on video terminals located at the state’s race tracks and OTB sites.
Think of it as casino horse racing.
The new law goes into effect July 1, when Wyoming will join Arkansas as the only two states offering historic race wagering.
"This will have profound effects on the horse racing industry throughout Wyoming, Utah and surrounding states," said Nelson.
Joyce estimated the parimutuel handle from historic racing could be as much as $100 million annually, or 10 times what the four existing off-track betting sites now generate. The new revenue will be pumped into live racing.
"This gives a track operator like myself the ability to run more days and offer more purse money," Joyce said. "... The intent of the governor and legislators is to see an increase in live racing. That’s what I’m dedicated to do."
Utah horsemen have already noticed.
On its Facebook page, the Utah Quarter Horse Racing Association posted this response to the new legislation: "This is really a shot in the arm for all Intermountain owners, breeders, trainers and anyone [else] in the race industry. Congratulations, Wyoming."
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