Columns & Blogs

Les Bois gets off to a fast start, but it's a long race

As a season-ticket holder for the San Diego Padres, Capitol Racing president Steve Bieri knows something about baseball — and long seasons.

That's why, even after two near-perfect days to open a new horse racing season at Les Bois Park, Bieri wasn't ready to declare victory.

"We're off to a great start. For the weekend, we're batting 1,000," Bieri said in the middle of Saturday's Kentucky Derby-related festivities and amid a packed house. "We know we'll have another good day on August 5th for the Idaho Cup. It's what we do in between that matters."

Bieri and his staff, including general manager Alan Horowitz, have positioned their track — abandoned last season after several disputes between Ada County and former operator Lariat Productions — to be a prime summer hangout.

The sports calendar is wide open. Boise State football is still months away from fall camp. The Steelheads and Stampede have completed their seasons. The Boise Hawks won't throw their first pitch for another six weeks.

But Capitol Racing, which took over the track last season, has done more than simply wait for the calendar vacancy. According to Bieri, the group invested more than $1 million to improve the facility — and the transformation is overwhelming.

Weeds no longer overrun the infield. The track no longer groans under the horses' gallop, a sure sign of a poor racing surface.

The revamped track has been a hit with trainers and horse owners. The more owners and trainers enjoy the track, the more — and better quality — horses they are likely to run. Better quality horses and full fields attract more betting money, which leads to bigger purses which in turn brings higher quality horses.

It's a cycle of success Capitol Racing understands completely.

The group has done — and is doing — all it can to entice and attract the public.

For one weekend, at least, it worked. Friday's stout crowd and heavy wagering raised hopes. Saturday's Derby fever attracted about 4,500 fans, according to Bieri. Before the first race at Les Bois, more than $27,000 had been wagered on the Derby and more than 11,000 mint juleps, a Derby requisite, had been sold.

No wonder Bieri was grinning Saturday like he'd hit a long-shot trifecta.

But the track's success or failure will depend on whether or not the 7,000-plus fans that turned out this week make it a habit to show up at the track on less glamorous weekends.

Or will they find other ways to spend their time and sporting dollars?

It's the same question owners face at Meridian Speedway, Firebird Raceway and dozens of other niche productions. The minor league teams — Steelheads, Stampede and Hawks — aren't immune to the phenomenon, either. Nor is Boise State basketball. Such splintered interests make it difficult for any entity to establish a broad, deep fan base.

In this market, only Boise State football can count on that. And who knows how many would care about the Broncos if they suddenly started going 4-8?

But Les Bois does have one advantage: the chance to make money. It's what attracted thousands, if not millions, around the country to plunk down their hard-earned dollars on horses very few had ever heard of before the Derby.

It's why novices pick local horses based on jockey, colors, name, odds or the way they look and cheer them to the finish. In some ways, it's like the NCAA Tournament.

No one really knows what's going to happen, so why not take a chance at getting lucky? You might just nail the exacta.

Capitol Racing has gambled more than just a few bucks that good management and the allure of horse racing can produce a winning ticket.

So far, so good.

"It's always better to start the season with two wins and not two losses," Bieri said.

Even in the longest of seasons — or the shortest of races — nothing feels better than a fast start.