BILLINGS — The spacious MetraPark grandstand, overlooking the horse-racing track formally known as Yellowstone Downs, is scheduled to be demolished soon.
It will truly be a sad moment for me when that part of the crumbling racing facility officially bites the dust. Crashing down with it will be any hopes of reviving the popular sport locally.
I spent a majority of my late summers at the track for 17 years, from 1995-2011, covering the big winners out on the oval for The Gazette, along with the enthusiastic crowds filling the towering stands.
With greats like Honkey Tonk Kid, Columbus Merit and Fruit Rapport turning for home, a day at the horse races used to be a really big thing for fans, young and old.
These days, huge rabbits, not thoroughbreds and quarter horses, roam freely on the grounds. Geese were swimming in mud puddles on the track’s first turn during a recent visit.
The big tote board is gone, and so is the starting gate and inner rail.
The place now looks old and rickety, especially with the weather-beaten stables on the backside. Sections of the grandstand and the former race office underneath are definitely exhibiting plenty of deterioration.
Over the years, however, the historic track was the setting for great horses, great races and it was a place where I met some terrific racing people.
Those were the days, and that’s why saying goodbye is so hard.
If the old concrete grandstand could speak, it would agree with me.
It has seen a lot over the last 70 years, particularly when it comes to what is affectionately known as the “Sport of Kings.”
The public flocked to the track to watch, wager and ask “Who do you like?” The roofed grandstand was a great place for watching all the action at the state's largest race meet.
The legendary jockey Willie Shoemaker even won a couple of races at the track on Aug. 13, 1989.
Quarter horse Eyes of Dawn and paint horse Binion established world records at Yellowstone Downs while racing in the early 2000s.
Eyes of Dawn tore through 300 yards in just 14.909 seconds in 2005. Binion covered a distance of three football fields in only 15.36 seconds in 2000.
“Cowboy” Jack Kaenel, who won the Preakness Stakes as a 16-year-old aboard Aloma’s Ruler in 1982 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, rode his last race at Yellowstone Downs in August 2007, finishing last on Danish Colors.
On what turned out to be the facility’s final day of racing on Sept. 18, 2011, the attendance was listed as 5,318, with still room for more in the grandstand.
Despite that sizable crowd, it was indeed a tumultuous time for horse racing, locally and statewide, with funding tight, horse numbers low and the overall economy struggling.
I didn’t live here during racing’s heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Billings race meets lasted as many as 40 days and once handled a state-record $5 million-plus for a single year, according to Brenda Wahler’s book Montana Horse Racing: A History.
The Billings meet during that final summer in 2011, already a distant memory, was a rousing success, however, and something definitely to build on.
Nobody leaving Yellowstone Downs that day would have guessed it would mark the end of an era of local racing dating to 1916.
A thoroughbred named We Love Ya Too thundered past the grandstand on its way to the finish line and wound up winning what would be the track’s final race ever.
There would be no more of the traditional sounds of the bugle calling the horses to the track for the post parade.
No more kids along the outside rail chasing after the winning jockey asking for his or her racing goggles.
The large area directly underneath the grandstand included, among other things, betting windows, a race-day office, locker-room for the jockeys and the paddock.
On a recent tour with a MetraPark employee, you could tell demolition day was descending.
But the long-abandoned jockeys’ room still had some familiar last names taped on lockers and storage areas: (Clay) Dunbar and (Kym) Espy, for example. There was still a makeshift sign above the betting windows telling you how to place wagers.
Yellowstone Downs, which was operated during its final 15 years on a privatized basis by a group of citizens/volunteers known as the Yellowstone Horse Racing Alliance, ran for four weekends during the 2011 meet.
The track averaged 3,957 in attendance and $87,034 in betting handle for eight racing days. Nearly $109,000 was bet on the final afternoon.
However, the Montana State Board of Horse Racing, which oversees the state’s tracks, ran into some severe financial problems during the offseason. The board even temporarily suspended all simulcasting, while it also did battle with a simulcast contractor.
There hasn’t been a race there ever since. And due to the coronavirus crisis, there will be no live racing in the state this summer.
The YHRA ran the races in Billings from 1997-2011 after the county got out of the racing business following the 1996 campaign, which lost $80,000.
They rented the grandstand, track and barns from the county and called it Yellowstone Downs. They accomplished a lot, after overcoming numerous perils and problems along the way.
Ben Carlson, a kindly gentleman and an astute businessman/plumber, was one of those who stepped up to the rescue. As a member of the YHRA, he also served as the track’s director of racing from 1998-2011.
Carlson, who managed to help extend Billings’ legacy of horse racing for 15 years, died in 2018.
The track’s most-recent glory days also benefited from the efforts of YHRA president Jim Espy, office manager Lou Wojciechowski, racing secretary Holly Burrows and barn superintendent Frank Sherman.
Cloyd Hudson directed the starting-gate crew for many years.
Three of my favorites in the jockey colony, Kym Espy, Dan Kistler and Jeff Jones, were among the local headliners riding like mad during that final season.
With his two young sons, Dalton and Tristan, among those cheering him on, the 50-year-old Jones won the last three leading-rider titles at Yellowstone Downs. He succumbed to brain cancer in 2015.
Espy, who rode off and on in Billings since 1986, was a four-time leading rider, with her last championship coming in 2006 and capping a three-peat.
Known for her grit and her competitiveness, Espy, at age 46, was hinting that 2011 might be her final season of racing at her hometown track, where she once won four consecutive races on a September afternoon in 2005.
Unfortunately, Espy never did receive the proper sendoff and final salute she deserved, but will always remain a big part of the track’s folklore.
Then there is Kistler, a racing machine from nearby Worden, who was still showing up in win pictures at age 64 and looking for more.
They will never be forgotten, along with Sidney trainer Doug Johnson, who always wore tennis shoes while he worked with his stable of terrific horses, and Mike Taylor, another big-time trainer from Rigby, Idaho.
The grandstand and track, which also hosted rodeos and motorsports, have always been prized real estate as part of the MetraPark fairgrounds.
What will now be done with the land is still to be determined.
After decades of witnessing horse racing and watching people work hard to make it a success, it’s going to be tough for me to see the track become a demolition zone in the coming months.
So long, Yellowstone Downs, I will miss you.