Many thought 2016 would mark the end of Sandy Downs’ decades-long horse racing tradition.
With six racing events scheduled this year — two more than last year — the track is seeing life, however. The closure of Les Bois Park in Garden City last year diverted attention and events toward Idaho Falls.
But those in the business believe the Gem State’s horse-racing industry is still on its last legs: noncompetitive and unsustainable compared to neighboring Wyoming.
Sandy Downs has leaned on other events since horse racing started to wane, including concerts, rodeos, monster truck rallies and beer festivals.
The facility, more than 50 years old, shows its age, though.
There have been recent renovations, but more needs to be done, Idaho Falls Parks and Recreation Director Greg Weitzel said.
Parks department officials are planning further improvements and additional facilities that could attract more special events and a wider variety of equine gatherings, which may supplement horse racing.
“It’s time to cut bait or invest in Sandy Downs and fix it up. We don’t have anything like this in southeast Idaho, so I think it’s worth the investment we’re putting into it,” Weitzel said. “I think it’s a gem in our system — it just needs to be polished and updated.”
The only thing missing is funding.
Not up to snuff
Sandy Downs isn’t competitive with other parks along the Interstate 15 corridor, Weitzel said.
Electrical infrastructure is dated; power went out three times during last year’s War Bonnet Roundup rodeo. The facility doesn’t have utility hookups. The park could use a new PA system, Weitzel said, and horse stalls are dilapidated and ready to be torn down.
Weather has taken its toll on wood grandstand bleachers, which are dried out and chipped.
“We’re behind the times. Look at Pocatello, Ogden, Heber City,” he said. “People in Idaho Falls are going to other areas for events. They take their trailers and stay and camp, eat at those restaurants and buy that gas and so forth.”
Parks and Recreation released a master plan for Sandy Downs’ future 10 years ago, but progress has been limited.
Employees began making small improvements last year using capital improvement funds from a $1 attendance surcharge enacted in 2015. Anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 is deposited in the fund each year depending on event attendance.
Funds have gone toward a new fence around Sandy Downs. Preliminary electrical improvements also have been made, and lighting poles were added to the parking and grandstand areas.
The grandstand recently was painted. Stucco and rock paneling were added to its lower half, thanks in part to several hundred volunteer hours.
“It’s a lot of little things, but it adds up,” Weitzel said. “A coat of paint does wonders.”
Many improvements needed
But the park needs more than paint. It needs additional facilities to attract events from other cities, Weitzel said.
The master plan proposes a roping arena, amphitheater and RV park with water and sewer hookups. The RV park could be helpful in facilitating larger events, such as festival-style camping, which is currently planned for eclipse weekend in August.
Parks officials also want to add lighting around the back of the track to bring back night racing, a Sandy Downs fixture of years past.
Melissa Bernard is CEO of Ida Racing, which promotes Sandy Downs racing. She remembers attending night races with her future husband.
“If you were in town you mostly had dinner and the movies, but night racing was there too, and people miss it,” she said. “We hear that all the time from our fans.”
Parks officials also want to replace half the grandstand’s wood-slat seats with aluminum, which would be more durable in the elements. The remaining seats would possibly be replaced next year.
Weitzel wants to add 1,000 seats to the 5,000-seat facility.
“I think that’s what we need. We’re packing the house with the War Bonnet, which sold out two days. There’s more demand than space,” he said.
A $1.3 million indoor equine arena is the most expensive proposed renovation. It would host bull riding, calf roping, team roping and agility events, along with high school rodeos. Hardwood could also be laid for boat or RV shows.
An indoor arena would draw great interest from an underserved community, Bernard said.
“Roping events are big around here, and these indoor areas fill up in the winter and summertime,” she said. “Every weekend it would be busy, especially in winter months.”
‘We have to look at everything’
Overall, there’s about $3.6 million in the upgrade wish list projected out to 2021, far more than the $1 surcharge can provide.
“Historical” or “instant” horse racing machines, slot machine-like betting terminals that allow patrons to place bets on previously run horse races, were supposed to subsidize upgrades and support the declining horse racing industry.
But after legalizing the terminals in 2013, the state Legislature repealed authorization two years later, citing a misrepresentation of the machines.
“We were sitting down with Ida Racing and talking about $5 million worth of improvements. Now that money’s off the table,” Weitzel said.
Horsemen took a large hit, as did Ida Racing.
The city doesn’t know yet how it’ll pay for additional improvements that instant racing would’ve funded, but Weitzel thinks the answer is in partnerships.
“The city working with producers, promoters, the county, 4-H, private individuals, other governmental entities that can assist us with improvements and grants. We have to look at everything,” he said.
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.