Live horses, historical racing: Group says gambling machines key to reopening Les Bois
Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories on Idaho’s Proposition 1. For a deeper look at the claims surrounding the initiative, follow this link.
Just seven years ago, Les Bois Park was in trouble.
Years of poor management had ended live horse racing in 2009. A horsemen’s group got together to think up ways to reopen the park, Idaho’s largest such venue.
Larry Williams left the meeting convinced he would have to get personally involved. He turned to fellow horseman Harry Bettis and said, “I will if you will.”
“I am in if you are in,” Bettis responded.
With that, Treasure Valley Racing was born.
Its eventual five co-owners returned racing to Les Bois for a few short years. To keep the park afloat and attract racers, they seized on a new source of income — gambling terminals with slot-machine-like displays that allow users to bet on the outcome of previously-run horse races.
Their pursuit of historical horse racing machines culminated in this year’s Proposition 1 campaign. Voters will decide in November whether to legalize the devices. If the vote fails, the Treasure Valley Racing owners say they’re done with the machines, and with Les Bois.
Those who care about the machines feel strongly. They view the devices as either a heralded key to keeping Idaho’s horse industry alive, or a suspicious end run around this state’s constitutional ban on slots. Proposition 1 faces organized opposition from gambling opponents, a Native American tribe, some local officials and lawmakers who still feel they were hoodwinked when they briefly allowed the machines five years ago.
But the fact that Idahoans are even having the debate is due to these five businesspeople and philanthropists. You may not know their faces, but you’d likely recognize their names, some of which adorn Boise State venues and a Greenbelt park.
The five owners — Williams, Bettis, Robert Rebholtz Jr., John Sheldon and Linda Yanke — recently gathered around a table in the Turf Club to talk about their love of horses, and why they see Proposition 1 as so important.
5 persistent Idahoans
Each of the Treasure Valley Racing owners has strong ties to Idaho. All but Sheldon grew up riding horses.
Bettis’ family is deeply rooted in Idaho, having lived here for 170 years. His great-grandfather, C.W. Moore, founded First National Bank in 1867, which later became Idaho First, West One and then merged with U.S. Bank. His great aunt, Laura Moore Cunningham, was a civic leader and visionary. Bettis, born and raised near Bellevue, is founder and president of the Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation, which funds about $5 million annually in Idaho college scholarships and other grants to nonprofit organizations.
Rebholtz’s family moved to Idaho from California about 50 years ago. He grew up in American Falls and moved with his family to Boise in 1978. He is president of Agri Beef, which was co-founded by his father. The company’s philanthropic endeavors include the Agri Beef Stadium Club Room at Albertsons Stadium, sponsoring the Basque Soccer Friendly and its Beef Counts program, which provides food to people in need in Washington and Idaho.
Sheldon was born in Council and moved to Boise at a young age. He attended Jackson, West, Borah and Boise State. He joined Morrison-Knudsen as an engineer in 1982. In 2013, the other Treasure Valley Racing owners convinced him to leave his engineering job and join the group as its president and manager.
Williams is a fifth generation “Midvale-ite.” He and his wife, Marianne, were born and raised on cattle ranches in Midvale. They moved their young family to Boise in 1966. Williams founded Idaho Timber Corporation in 1979, and it grew to be one of the 10 largest private companies in the state. He sold his share in 2005. The Williamses were integral in the development of the 70-acre Marianne Williams Park in southeast Boise, and the Caven-Williams Sports Complex and Bleymaier Football Center at Boise State. There is a Larry and Marianne Williams Plaza at Albertsons Stadium, and the couple are major donors to Saint Alphonsus Health System.
Yanke was born and raised in Owyhee County. She is president of Yanke Machine Shop, one of many businesses owned by her late husband, Ron, who was one of the original three investors in Micron Technology. Boise State is home to the Ron and Linda Yanke Family Research Park and the Nicholson-Yanke Athletic Center. The Yankes also are major donors to Saint Al’s.
All about the horses
Bettis and Ron Yanke partnered on their first racehorse about 25 years ago.
Today, Bettis has maybe two dozen horses — he said he wasn’t actually sure of the number. “Everybody that is connected with horses is somewhat affected mentally,” he joked.
Since Les Bois closed, Bettis has been racing his horses in Washington and New Mexico.
Williams also races out of state. “I always loved the horse business,” he said. “In about 2000, Marianne and I determined to get back in and do some horse thing.”
They found the ideal property in Parma and opened Tree Top Ranch, modeled after Kentucky thoroughbred farms. The Williamses started acquiring thoroughbreds “on a real small scale. Then we kind of grew it and it grew a little bit more and then it got out of control,” he said, laughing.
Now they have horses numbering “almost three digits” at farms in Idaho, Kentucky and California. One, Rousing Sermon, reached the Kentucky Derby in 2012 and came in eighth. The 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, California Chrome, was sired by Williams’ Lucky Pulpit.
The others don’t currently race horses — and Rebholtz never has. “He is the only smart one in the bunch,” Sheldon quipped.
Rebholtz said his passion for horses began when he was 6 years old. He started riding horses and showing them in 4-H events.
“My first horse racing experience was at Les Bois as a kid,” he said. “I’ve just grown to love it and being around people who love horses.”
He still has riding horses, which he often takes to the Foothills near Eagle.
“I don’t know how many times I see kids on the trails who have never seen a horse before,” he said. “They want to come up and touch it and pet it. In part, that is kind of the passion I have for bringing horse racing back to Les Bois. So the kids can have those experiences.”
Sheldon also started going to Les Bois as a child, and became a horse racing aficionado. In the mid-1980s, he partnered with three of his Borah High School teachers to buy one racehorse, then another, and another.
He sold his last racehorse about a decade ago, he said, but is still a devout fan of the sport.
Yanke’s involvement in horse racing began with her husband’s partnership with Bettis. She stopped racing horses when Les Bois closed. She only wants to race in Idaho, she said, and may get back into it if the group decides to resume live racing at Les Bois.
“I lost my husband 14 years ago and I am still involved with the racing,” she said. “It is just a great community project that we got ourselves involved in.”
Creating Treasure Valley Racing
Les Bois was managed by out-of-state interests or by owners with sparse horse racing experience in the years before Treasure Valley Racing formed.
Leaving the 2011 horsemen’s meeting, Williams and Bettis knew they would need “some brains” to help them launch a racing venture, they said. They convinced Yanke and Rebholtz to join them.
“That is how we got started,” Williams said.
Treasure Valley Racing secured a five-year lease with Ada County, which owns Les Bois and Expo Idaho, to operate the 63-acre racetrack and Turf Club. It then got to work restoring the track and sprucing up the facility.
On July 2, 2011, the grandstand filled, “First Call” bugled, starting bells rang, gates popped open and thundering hooves returned to Les Bois for the first time in two years.
Quiet, soft-spoken Yanke beams when she talks about that day. People were already lined up when the admission gates opened. And more kept coming. The admission gates couldn’t keep up. Yanke said she was concerned all those people would not be able to get in before the first race started.
“We finally said, ‘just let them go,’ and everyone else got in free,” she said. “There was a huge crowd and we were so thrilled to see that, to know that the community is behind us.”
Historical horse racing arrives — then leaves
Even under Treasure Valley Racing, Les Bois never made a profit.
The company lost about $1 million a year, including money put into remodeling work and a parking lot.
Two years after Les Bois reopened, the Idaho Legislature passed a bill supported by race track operators that legalized historical horse-race betting terminals.
For historical racing, also known as instant racing, the past races are replayed on the machines without identifying information. Along with their spinning wheels, sounds and animations, the machines have a small screen to display the replays.
Treasure Valley Racing spent $2 million purchasing 200 of the terminals and remodeling the Turf Club to make room for them. They turned on the machines in May 2014.
Ten months later, the Legislature repealed historical racing. Lawmakers said the betting machines were not what they thought they would be, resembling slot machines more than video replay devices.
Gov. Butch Otter vetoed the bill, but not quickly enough for the veto to survive a court challenge. Treasure Valley Racing unplugged its machines, and while some horse racing has continued at other Idaho tracks, Les Bois and the Turf Club have sat dark since September 2015.
The machines had proved lucrative. During the 16 months they were at Les Bois, people wagered $127.5 million, an average of nearly $2 million a week. In comparison, total live and simulcast wagering at Les Bois in 2014 and 2015 totaled just $17 million.
The influx of cash also increased winnings for racehorse owners. Purses awarded at Les Bois in 2012 totaled $1.3 million, with an average purse of $4,053. In 2014, the first year with historical racing revenue, Les Bois’ purses increased 72 percent to $2.3 million, with an average purse of $8,285.
Had the gambling machines stayed legal, Treasure Valley Racing in 2015 would have made a profit for the first time.
“We were on the right track and it just stopped” when the machines were banned, Sheldon said.
Following failed attempts to change lawmakers’ minds in 2016, 2017 and 2018, Treasure Valley Racing decided to turn to voters.
This spring, it gathered enough signatures to get a legalization vote on the ballot — one of only two successful referendum pushes since additional requirements were added to the process in 2013.
It’s the group’s final effort to find a way to make horse racing viable in Idaho, Williams said. If voters reject Proposition 1, he said, Treasure Valley Racing is done and “will walk away.”
A contentious election (so far)
Proposition 1 has provoked controversy since Williams and his partners announced their push. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, which operates its own casino, and a coalition of lawmakers and other public officials have lined up against the measure.
The Idaho Attorney General’s Office this spring concluded the measure would likely end up in court over constitutional ambiguity. Proponents and opponents each accused the other of harassing or lying to signature collectors, and to people signing petitions. Opponents also took Proposition 1 supporters to task for implying the measure was a vote on horse racing itself.
The rhetoric has increased this fall, with television ads from both sides under scrutiny. Treasure Valley Racing’s political arm — the Committee to Save Idaho Horse Racing, Create Jobs, and Fund Public Schools — recently pulled an ad that edited a clip of KTVB anchor Mark Johnson.
State campaign finance records show the political committee spent $1.4 million collecting signatures and advocating this spring to get Proposition 1 on the November ballot. Treasure Valley Racing was its sole contributor.
“The (rumor) we heard all through the signature gathering process is Proposition 1 is funded by dark out-of-state money. You are looking at the ‘dark out-of-state money’ right here,” Sheldon said, gesturing to his fellow owners.
Opponents have also accused Treasure Valley Racing of pushing Proposition 1 because its owners stand to benefit financially from horse racing and the betting terminals.
The five Idahoans say they didn’t get into horse racing to get rich. They point to the costs of care and feeding, veterinarians, trainers, jockeys, stabling, racing equipment and transportation.
“I know a lot of horse people and I do not know one that makes any money,” Williams said, calling horse ownership “a labor of love.”
Williams and his partners responded last week by announcing a new charitable foundation — The Treasure Valley Racing Foundation for Rural Idaho — dedicated to supporting education, scholarships, and health care and economic programs that serve rural families and communities all across Idaho.
“For each of us, restoring live horse racing in our state has always been about strengthening Idaho’s rural communities and horse racing family livelihoods,” Rebholtz said at a press conference.
The five co-owners said they will seed the new nonprofit with $100,000. Past that, they said, it will receive “every dime of net income” from racing operations at Les Bois Park.
The group, however, must first decide to reopen Les Bois before they’ll see any profits. Rebholtz didn’t address that wrinkle Thursday. But Save Idaho Horse Racing spokesman Todd Dvorak later said if Proposition 1 fails, “then the owners of Treasure Valley Racing will have to revisit how the foundation will achieve its goals.”
Knowing what they know now, and amid their last effort to make Les Bois financially feasible, would Treasure Valley Racing do the past seven years all over again?
“Yes,” said Williams. “We would do it again because we believe strongly in it. We had a lot of opportunities to give up along the way. It is just the right thing to do.”
“When it was successful and we were getting all of those crowds, it just does your heart good to see that for the community … when you see that families can enjoy this,” Yanke said. “That is why we are doing this.”