Monday, August 18, 2014

A Territorial Period Landmark

Summer is county and state fair season and Montana’s fairs at Helena stretch back to 1867. Horse racing—both trotting and racing under saddle—was central to those celebrations. Helena’s official racetrack, completed in September 1870, accommodated six to eight totting horses and sulkies abreast, and it was the only regulation one-mile track in the territory. Early fairs attracted racers from across the West. Kentucky thoroughbreds, Montana-bred runners and trotters, and non-pedigreed horses all raced at the Helena track in the early years. But by 1884, entrants had to go through a nomination process to be accepted to race. After statehood in 1889, Helena’s fair became the State Fair. Purses of $300, $500, and $1,000 in the various trotting and running categories emphasize the importance of these races and Helena’s track. The track was refurbished in 1890, and according to local tradition, trains brought in carloads of imported Kentucky earth to spread on the track for luck. The newly refurbished track, said the Independent, was “as smooth as a billiard table….”

This aerial view shows the historic footprint of the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds Racetrack circa 1970s.
Courtesy MDT.
In 1904, relay races were introduced. Racers rode only thoroughbreds. Riders changed horses at top speed. Fannie Sperry, later the Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World, rode Montana’s first relay race at the fairgrounds racetrack. Betting on horse races became illegal in 1914, the state cut its funding, drought impacted agricultural displays, and the fair began to decline. A new auto racing track built inside the one-mile racetrack brought a new attraction in 1916, although horse racing remained popular.  Betting resumed in 1930 when more than 350 horses from the best circuits in Canada, Mexico, and the United States vied for generous purses, but the Great Depression suspended fairs. Helena’s last was in 1932. The state fair later moved to Great Falls.

Portions of the track remain intact, recalling the days when horse racing was a popular sport.  Courtesy SHPO.
Horse racing reemerged with the Last Chance Stampede from 1961 to 1998. Today surviving sections of the racetrack, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, are a rare territorial period landmark. Recent insensitive remodeling of the fairgrounds destroyed some of the track. The surviving portions remain highly endangered.

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