It's quiet in the stands at Les Bois Park. No cheers or hoof beats. Just locked gates.
"You go to the back side, it's got weeds this tall. Nothing's taken care of. It's just sitting there," said Lindsey Comstock, a "gallop-girl" who under normal circumstances would be spending the summer at the track exercising racehorses.
Since the 1970s, horse races at Les Bois Park in Garden City have drawn a diverse crowd of horse enthusiasts, cowboys, gamblers, families and spectators. After the previous leaseholder, San Diego-based Capitol Racing LLC, withdrew earlier this year due to concerns about turning a profit, the status of the park has been in an uneasy limbo. Now as two new companies, the Greene Group Inc. and Oneida Capital LLC, vie for the contract to run Les Bois Park, some racers say it's too little too late.
"I don't see it opening this year. The big racers are gone. The backyard horses are the only ones that would be competing," said Comstock, who uses the money from training horses to pay for her undergraduate studies in biology at Boise State. In April, frustrated by the lack of progress and priority the track was receiving from the Board of Ada County Commissioners, Comstock submitted a guest opinion to the Idaho Statesman.
"On the outside, nobody has the whole picture. We'll probably never know what is going on. I feel like the commissioners are speaking out one side of their mouths," said Comstock.
When BW met with Ada County Commissioner Fred Tilman, he was optimistic that a new operator will soon be selected.
"At this point, we have two viable entities. We've been committed from day one to expedite the process, and we've tried diligently to find a lease holder. The devil is in the details. We want to make it happen as quickly as possible, but we want to do it correctly. We've been trying to find a lease holder with a viable business plan and a good background. We don't want a place holder with a bad product," Tilman said.
While the Ada County commissioners have been evaluating potential companies to manage the track, the racing community has been chomping at the bit as the racing season quickly passes by.
"A true horseman has to be an eternal optimist or you wouldn't be in it. It's the highest of highs, lowest of lows. I tend to be an eternal optimist. I tend to believe it will be worked out," said Tawnja Elison, president of the Idaho Thoroughbred Association. Like many owners, Elison has left Boise for greener pastures, currently racing in Pleasanton, Calif. The diaspora of racers who would otherwise be competing in Idaho are scattered across North America, from Nebraska to Manitoba.
Tom Dougherty, vice president of the ITA, is convinced that the Greene Group is the best solution for horsemen. "Nothing's in stone, but the Greene Group is here and it's very possible that something is going to happen. If the Greene Group gets running in July, that's the best-case scenario. The local horses have moved out, but they'll come back once things shake out. I don't think lack of horses is going to ruin the meet. We're pretty confident."
Eugene Burns, a Boise owner currently racing in Denver, thinks otherwise.
"Now that we're gone, we can't come back. We can sit there and lose money or go somewhere and try to make money. It would be almost suicide to open a meet in July and say you'll have enough horses."
Michele Naugoe, an owner, trainer and breeder, agrees. "If you're doing well in another state, you don't just pick up and come back because they've opened your home track. You have to run where the money is," she said.
Unlike Burns, Naugoe was unable to leave Idaho to race this year and now finds herself in a bind over what to do with her horse business.
"It's hard for me because I have kids in school, and I can't travel out of state. I have other horses here to take care of, too. I strongly feel that if they don't have a meet this year, I have this sick feeling we won't have it again. 2010 is the end of the contract. You may be looking at the end of horse racing in the valley."
The potential redevelopment of Les Bois Park is a common concern in the racing community. While Tilman noted that all across the country horse tracks are struggling in similar situations to Ada County's, he adamantly dismissed rumors that Les Bois Park will be developed into Garden City's newest strip mall or condos. "If anything, in the years to come, the facility will be enhanced. The track is going to stay where it is," said Tilman.
The sphere of economic influence expands well beyond Les Bois Park. Todd Johnson, owner of Jim Flynn's Saddle Shop, is stuck with surplus inventory ordered under the presumption of a racing season.
"Put your dot on the track. Draw a three to four mile radius--that's your impact zone. Can the businesses withstand the loss?" Johnson asked.
"Jim Flynn, the original owner, used to take a trailer over to sell at the track. We've been together with Les Bois Park a long time. This is the second time in four years the track has closed. Personally, it's getting old," said Johnson. Johnson points out that everything from Pastry Perfection to Fred Meyer will see fewer customers this year.
"There's no question: It's in the millions of dollars. Just scratching the surface, it affected 300 jobs. You've got fuel, tires, vet services, hay, grain--everything snowballs," said Dougherty.
According to Burns, Denver is profiting from the Boise exodus and the hemorrhage of Ada County's economy.
"They're pretty happy. They welcome the new horses and fresh blood. 'It's too bad but come here,' they said. As soon as they saw Les Bois wouldn't open on time, every track that is starting a meet was calling people. 'Don't worry about it just come.' They cater to you."