What is horse racing’s future in eastern Idaho?

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Facilities improvements will be critical to horse racing’s survival at Sandy Downs, Ida Racing CEO Melissa Bernard said. Ida Racing promotes racing at Sandy Downs.

In addition to bull riding, roping, and other rodeo events, additional facilities could attract chariot racers.

Many racers travel to Utah, where the World Champion Cutter and Chariot races are held.

“The big majority of the horsemen who run the chariot racing are from Idaho, and they’re having to go to a facility in Utah,” Bernard said. “It’s revenue right now that’s leaving the state.”

Still, facilities won’t be enough to sustain the industry long term, Bernard said. Horsemen are moving from Idaho to earn more money elsewhere, including Wyoming.

The average purse in Wyoming last year was almost $5,000 per horseman, compared to about $2,000 at Sandy Downs, Bernard said.

“If you have a choice to race in Idaho or Wyoming you’ll go where the money is, no question,” she said. “We can’t compete with them.”

“Historical” or “instant” horse racing machines, slot machine-like betting terminals that allow patrons to place bets on previously run horse races, contribute to Wyoming purses, though the machines have a tumultuous history there.

After initially being approved in 2003, they were banned three years later, then reintroduced in 2013. Wyoming’s attorney general banned the machines again in 2015 because of a “bonus round” based on chance, so companies reprogrammed the machines in 2016 to remove the round.

Bernard hopes Idaho might similarly revisit instant racing. The terminals were legalized in 2013, but the state Legislature repealed authorization two years later, arguing proponents misrepresented the machines.

“Usually if there’s something wrong you don’t kill it, you fix it. Sometimes if you’re given a second chance you learn from your mistakes and make it better,” she said.

Racing needs to evolve, Bernard said, especially in a field crowded with tribal gaming and the lottery. Neither of which existed during the sport’s heyday.

“At the end of the day every single business has to remain competitive. Horse racing just wants a chance to be able to evolve. The lottery isn’t the same as it was the day it started,” she said. “I hope there’s hope in the future those things can be addressed, and our Legislature and our local community can see the value in the equine industry.”

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