A gaggle of geese, a couple of foxes, the occasional deer and the irrigation system were the only things running at Les Bois Park racetrack this past week.
Yes, it was Kentucky Derby week, the traditional opening for the horse track. Les Bois would have been to host Ladies Night on Wednesday, when maybe 4,000 fans would show up for the first of meets in the season. Saturday would have been Derby Day, when 6,000 might have gathered for the simulcast from Churchill Downs and to play the ponies in a half-dozen or more live races.
But Les Bois is a ghost track these days, its 800-odd stables empty of horseflesh and gear, and all of the dreams and drama of the place seemingly evaporated by circumstance.
Live racing ended at the end of the 2015 season, and the controversial “historical racing” machines that had subsidized the racing and purses were unplugged in March of 2016 when the Legislature banned the machines as being too similar to illegal slot machines. Though there has been no live racing since, there have been occasional efforts and ideas to revive the place.
John Sheldon, president of Treasure Valley Racing, confirmed that he and a groundskeeper are the only two employees left overseeing the 63-acre racetrack, which he has under lease through 2018.
Two years ago, there were 500 to 600 horses and 300 employees busy getting ready for Derby Day and the 50-meet season. There would have been bands and food trucks and ladies sporting their Derby hats.
For now, though, Sheldon acknowledges he is the ghost mayor of the ghost track until the day — if that day ever comes — when the financial realities of racing can keep the place afloat. He and his allies believe that permitting the betting terminals in the Turf Club is the only way to underwrite live racing.
During the 16 months in 2014 and 2015 that historical racing machines were legally operating, the Statesman’s Cynthhia Sewell reported that bettors wagered $127.5 million, an average of nearly $2 million a week, at Les Bois.
Without the right revenues, this place will never come back to life and everyone knows it. This former hub of beer and betting and bonding among Idaho’s horse people is slipping away to time and the grip of the geese, the foxes, the birds nesting in the grandstands, feral cats and that occasional deer.
As tumbleweeds collect on the grounds and in the stables, an uneasy quiet settles in for now. The Derby Day memories come and go like the wind for the faithful. The real thing may never return.