The Horse Races take place this weekend at the San Miguel County Fairgrounds, attracting horses, jockeys and spectators from throughout the Four Corners region.
Formerly a part of the San Miguel Basin Rodeo, called the Cowboy Relay Race, the Horse Races became their own event after an unfortunate accident in 1984, where horses and riders got injured, explains Dargavel. The split led to the formation of a nonprofit organization in 1985, with Dargavel serving as its president ever since.
But the group could focus on creating a separate horse racing event, the found themselves scheduling a “save the race barn” weekend because the fairground’s eight horse stalls, located on the Highway 145 right of way, were scheduled to be torn down. That task accomplished, thanks to hoards of volunteers, the group’s next task was to convince the horsemen and jockeys from the Cowboy Relay to come back for their first Spring Race Meet in 1986.
For the inaugural event, there were just three races each day with three horses in each race. Today the jockeys run no less than seven races – “We’ve run as many as nine,” says Dargavel – with four to six horses in each race. “We build the races according to what the horsemen bring” and fill in the gaps as necessary, she says. The types of races, which might range from 220 (220-yard straightaway) to 550 to six-and-a-half furlong, are determined by distance and the age of the horses.
“These are paramutual-quality horses,” she says. They’re tattooed in their lip, they wear (cleated) aluminum plates (as opposed to iron shoes). These are not pasture ponies. They come from all Four Corners.” Registered with the New York Jockey Club or the American Quarter Horse Association, “these are horses like the one that just won the Kentucky Derby,” says Dargavel. “Jockeys like Pat Day and Mike Smith – they all started on these bull rings, bush tracks (six-mile tracks).
“Each horse, whether from here, Montrose, Ridgway or Gunnison, that horse does not know that this is not the Kentucky Derby. They come out to win.”
The Norwood track is the first of a regional circuit that also brings racers to Ridgway and Gunnison. “We’re looking to add Montrose next year,” she says.
“These little tracks – they take young horses and give them an out to see how their going to perform. The older horses” use the opportunity “to prepare for bigger tracks in Denver and Albuquerque.
“They say, if you can’t win in Norwood, you can’t win anywhere. Many jockeys have broken their maiden,” or won their first race, here.
The jockeys themselves tend to come from the horsmen’s families – kids or other family members. The tradition of raising and racing horses is “very much family orientated,” explains Darvagel.
Over the years, the Spring Race Meet has become Norwood’s first big event of the summer season. As a result, “the [county] commissioners have tried new [policies] on us,” quips Dargavel. “We’ve jumped every hurdle. We work well with the county commissioners.”
But the success of the event has everything to do with its dedicated volunteers and sponsors. “They love it so much,” she says.
Every year an options booth is set up at the fairgrounds for spectators to bet on the races. And each race will also have a Calcutta – “because people, of course, shy away from betting,” says Dargavel – where people can bid to “buy” their favorite horse at auction. Montrose auctioneer Buster Cattles will lead the bidding and, depending on how fast each horse is auctioned off, there might be up to four Calcuttas per race. The “owners” of first and second place horses share the pool of money raised at the auction, less 20 percent, which goes back to SMHRA for overhead.
“We encourage spectators to visit the paddock area, where the horses get saddled and tacked,” to preview the horses. There will be a post parade, where the horses walk the track, before each race. “A lot of people here bet on the jockeys.”
This is the first race of the season for horsemen to get a clue about how their horses are going to run with company,” says Dargavel. The purse for all but one race is $500, with money paid out for first ($250), second and third places ($125 each). The final race each day – quarter-horses on Saturday, thoroughbreds on Sunday – has a $1,000 purse.
There is no entry fee to attend the Horse Races, but the Norwood Lions Club will be taking donations at the gate. Food, beverages and craft booths will be available, and Stick Horse Races will give area kids the opportunity to get out on the track, with all proceeds benefitting Prime Time Early Learning Center. For more information, contact T.K.
Dargavel at 970/428-4100.
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