It has been business as usual for the most part at Les Bois Park, even if everything else was out of the ordinary.
Horses have been training at the Garden City track, stables have been maintained, owners have been watching over their investments and veterinarians have been tending to the nearly 250 animals housed there.
The preparation has been for a live racing season that almost didn’t happen, with hundreds of people in limbo and pondering their next move, dependent on a bill in the Legislature that would have eliminated historical racing machines. The addition of those instant racing machines last summer has been controversial, with their constitutional legality in question, but they have been key in increasing purses and keeping the track afloat, officials say.
On Monday, Gov. Butch Otter’s veto of Senate Bill 1011 and a subsequent failure by the Senate to override it allowed the season to proceed.
“It’s a really hard spot, getting ready when you don’t really want to leave, but you know you might have to,” said Treece McClintic, a groom who works the horses and stables at Les Bois. “It has been a relief. What we all wanted was to say, we had those plans in our heads, but didn’t want to say it to jinx it or whatever, so it’s nice to finally go ahead.”
Those whose jobs and lifestyles are dependent on the industry rejoiced when the bill was vetoed, allowing a full season that will run from May 16 to Aug. 8, instead of what would have been an abbreviated season concluding with Les Bois’ closing June 30.
Treasure Valley Racing, which operates Les Bois, said the bill would have been a deathblow to Les Bois and Idaho’s horse racing industry.
“I was just sick — wondering what in the hell am I going to do now?” trainer/owner Bill Hoburg said. “It was just a weight off everyone’s shoulders. It’s kind of getting back to normal. (Tuesday) we were a little off, maybe celebrated a little too much Monday.”
Hoburg moved to Idaho from Washington in the winter, and the prospect of hauling horses all around tracks in the West would have been trying financially and physically. McClintic, a Homedale native, likely would have moved out of state to another track. Some would have been forced to make a choice to give up the sport altogether.
“I’d convinced myself this was it,” said trainer/owner Kenny McReynolds, who first jockeyed a horse in 1955. “This is home. I didn’t want to quit, but I wasn’t ready to leave. Hopefully I’ll be in it till they bury me.”
Even for the younger blood at the track, roots had been set, but the specter of its shutdown loomed over everything. Jockey Nickeela Black bought a home in Canyon County last fall and in January was promoted to partner at the Boise law firm where she works. Black finished first in 36 percent of her races last year, No. 1 nationally among jockeys with at least 100 mounts.
“I was contemplating where I wanted to go — this is a huge part of my life. I’m not ready to give up riding, so I had to think about that,” Black said. “I was getting more and more nervous. It was so stressful.”
Black didn’t reapply for her jockey’s license until Wednesday, thinking if there was going to be a shortened season, it wasn’t in her best interest to pursue it. Purses would not have been strong, and neither would have the quality of competition.
For those not forced to move elsewhere, the potential closing would have greatly affected business, from farmers who raise feed to veterinarians such as Matt Woodington. His parents raced horses, and since he was 5, he’s helped to clean stalls and work around Les Bois. The park has been a huge part of his life.
“It was chaotic, not knowing the future of this racetrack where I grew up, not knowing the future of my business. It was a little depressing around here each time we got bad news,” Woodington said. “I hired another veterinarian, assuming we’d have the season. She started Monday, and that could have been her last day. So it’s been a relief, to say the least.”
Treasure Valley Racing President John Sheldon said, “You had more than 100 people under employment here wondering if they had jobs, which is an incredibly tough spot to be in.”
The holding pattern permeated a lot at Les Bois — and further. Trainers and owners around the West waited to hear about the track’s fate before committing the thousands it costs to transport horses and to pay for stalls.
“I know people who have already put in orders since Monday to buy some horses to bring here. I wanted to make some improvements to our barn here, but had to wait,” owner/trainer Tawnja Elison said. “(Winter tracks) finish at the end of the month. I had people calling wanting to know if they should send them here or somewhere like Minnesota, so it affected people in other states, too.”
Typically at this time of year, Les Bois is home to about 500 horses, but the number is about half that right now. General Manager Duayne Didericksen said he is hoping to get a full slate of trainers to return, and now with the season a go, he expects to see the number of horses exceed 600 within a week.
“We’re going to be more conscious about how many lives we affect, because when you’re so close to losing it, you appreciate it more,” Didericksen said. “We’ll treat the horsemen better, the public better, ourselves better.”
McClintic said the mood has no doubt changed since Monday, but “it’s kind of quiet, a relief, but we know it probably will be an ongoing thing.”
The possibility of further legal action to challenge the veto exists, but that doesn’t seem to matter on the backside of the track anymore.
“It’s been fabulous,” Black said. “Everyone’s been so happy, and a lot of work we’ve all put in will show right here where we want to be.”