Wyoming Downs returns to life next Saturday and, somewhere, Joe Joyce is smiling.
For the first time since 2009 — not counting a two-day dress rehearsal last September — the only parimutuel race track within an hour’s drive of the Wasatch Front will open for the summer.
Wyoming Downs will conduct a 16-day weekend meet through Aug. 10 — something that probably wouldn’t be happening if Joyce hadn’t intervened 25 years ago and saved the track, most likely from eager land developers.
Good guy 1, Bulldozers 0.
Located nine miles north of Evanston on the sparkling Bear River, Wyoming Downs opened in 1985.
It was a financial disaster and Joyce, a former co-owner of Arlington Park in Chicago and respected member of the national racing community, was sent to the track by the bank to run the place while a new owner was found.
Joyce fell in love with Wyoming Downs, however, and ended up buying it. He operated the little track and its off-track betting sites for nearly a decade.
Along the way, Joyce ran the operation with the acumen he’d gained from 30 years in horse racing, which was highlighted in 1981 by his creation of the Arlington Million.
It was the sport’s first $1 million event and remains, even in these inflated times, one of the world’s premier horse races.
Later, Joyce’s friendship with jockey Bill Shoemaker resulted in Wyoming Downs becoming a stop on the great jockey’s farewell tour.
On July 22, 1989, Shoemaker came to the track and rode horses named The Irish Devil and Sailor Erin to victory. Over 5,000 fans jammed the grandstand and trackside area to watch.
Joyce sold Wyoming Downs in 1998. He died in 2006 at the age of 77.
The other day, I was talking about Joyce to a friend. He offered a story which illustrated the compassion and decency of a man who did so much for horse racing in this area.
Soon after Joyce had arrived in Wyoming, my friend went to the track with a buddy, who hit an $850 trifecta. But he lost the ticket. Frantically, he looked in garbage cans, restrooms, on the floor of the grandstand and on the counter of every concession stand.
It was gone.
So was Wyoming Downs’ responsibility to pay him.
The guy returned to Salt Lake — distraught — but called the race track to see if he had any options. He ended up talking to Joyce, who told him there was a way to claim the money. The only hitch: he had to wait a full year to see if someone else would cash the ticket.
If not, Joyce said, he could come to the racing office the following summer, fill out an affidavit and claim his windfall.
The next day, Joyce went a step farther.
He called the guy back and instructed him to come to Wyoming Downs and pick up his money. The parimutuel system had been checked. There was an outstanding $850 ticket that had not been cashed.
Although he remained without any obligation in the situation, Joyce wanted the college-age kid to have his money.
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