Jason Beem's Thursday Column for Oct. 13, 2022
A good Thursday to you all! I wanted to dedicate today’s column to a racetrack visit I had recently. Such a vast majority of racing coverage is given to the big tracks, and rightly so, as that’s where not only most of our sport’s stars ply their trade, but also where a majority of horseplayers are betting at.
In a recent podcast interview with horseplayer Michael Podd on my show, we talked about our "tracks visited" lists, and Michael mentioned he was jealous that I’d recently gotten to visit Sweetwater Downs. Michael has visited 151 tracks in his travels, but he hasn’t been to this little Wyoming oval. (Oval might be the wrong descriptor, as you can see from the overhead shot below.)
I didn’t plan on visiting Sweetwater Downs last month. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know it existed until last month. On the first day of my cross-country drive from Virginia back to Washington, I had responded to a jockey friend's post on Instagram.
I asked what track she was riding at and she said, “Sweetwater Downs in Rock Springs, Wyoming.” I mentioned I was planning on driving through Wyoming, and she said I should stop by. Wouldn’t you know it, they were running on Saturday, which was about when I’d be rolling through Rock Springs.
Rock Springs is exactly as it is named. “It’s like living on the surface of the moon, all rocks,” my friend said. It’s a unique landscape, for sure. Just a few hours east of there are Cheyenne and Laramie, which are at very high elevations but also have a fair bit of grass and trees. Rock Springs has rocks. I think the closest major airport to it would be Salt Lake City, which is about three hours to the west. I suppose Denver is an option as well, but that’s five hours away.
I pulled up to the track, and the facility looked quite new — or, at least, recently refurbished. The grandstand looked kind of like what you’d find at a nice football stadium, with aluminum bench seating that probably holds over a thousand people. There were four food trucks out there selling stuff and, I’d guess, a Saturday crowd of maybe 400 or so; more than I’d seen at some bigger tracks, that’s for sure.
Shortly after arriving, I got to chat with General Manager Eugene Joyce, who is the older brother of television star and personality Mike Joyce. He told me about the track and racing in the state, which primarily now runs between Sweetwater Downs and Wyoming Downs, which is in Evanston, Wyoming. The state has off-track betting as well as historical horse racing, and the purses at Sweetwater Downs were bigger than I was expecting, generally around $7,000 per race. The feature was a futurity worth over $120,000.
It was clear that in many ways, racing at Sweetwater Downs was a family operation. Many of the gate crew members went over to talk to their spouses who were pony people. I saw a few times where grandparents were watching the kids while Mom ponied a horse during the post parade. It’s interesting to watch all the moving parts of a racetrack program because whether you’re at Sweetwater Downs or Churchill Downs, so many of the same roles and jobs are similar. Track announcer A.P. Harreld was as much a comedian and host as he was a racecaller and kept the crowd entertained at all times. I got a real kick out of him.
There was a documentary film crew there as well, and they were shooting all day long and apparently have been there all season long. I look forward to seeing their glimpse into racing at Sweetwater Downs. I love the passion of the people at racetracks and while it’s clear most folks aren’t getting rich riding or racing there, they still pour everything they have into it and want to put on a good show.
I’m sure many of you have seen some of the great content that the "Real Players Inside the Backstretch" put out on social media, showcasing so many of the hardworking folks in racing on the backstretch. I think people’s passion about horse racing can be contagious, and it’s always such a good reminder of why so many of us have made this game our occupation and pursuit.