And they’re off!

BELCOURT Today marks the start of four consecutive weekends of horse racing at Chippewa Downs. If the number of horses that have been working out at the track in recent days is any indication, this season’s racing should be some of the most competitive ever to be released from the local paddock.

All 260 stalls on the grounds at Chippewa Downs have been full for several days prior to race day.

“We could have had more than that if we had more facilities,” said Doug Demontigny, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Outdoor Recreation Development Association. “We’ve got horses here from Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, North and South Dakota and Canada. We draw from quite an area and we have jockeys in here from all over the United States as well.”

Racing starts today at Chippewa Downs. The first release is set for 1:30 p.m. According to Demontigny, horses will be paraded before the grandstand and called to the paddock about 1:10.

“We invite race fans to show up a little early. When we call the horses to the paddock it is an opportunity to see these equine athletes saddled and get a close-up look at them prior to the first race,” said Demontigny.

In addition to a full slate of races today and Sunday, Chippewa Downs will host racing June 22-23, 29-30 and July 6-7. Admission is $2 for adults and concessions are available on the grounds. Eight races are scheduled for each session, expected to be mixed equally between quarter-horses and thoroughbreds.

“We’ve been putting on races annually since the law was first enacted making pari-mutuel racing legal around the state. The North Dakota State Racing Commission licenses us and is responsible for most of our funding, most of which comes from off-track betting sites,” explained Demontigny.

Les Thomas, vice-president of the Turtle Mountain Tourism Association, calls the Turtle Mountain region and Chippewa Downs “one of the best kept secrets around.” Thomas cites the addition of several hotel rooms at the nearby Sky Dancer Casino as a step forward for tourism in the region and a boost for horse racing.

“The amenities that we have to offer in our area is quite unique,” said Thomas. “We have probably the only horse racing track in the state of North Dakota besides Fargo. It’s huge for us and for our tourism attraction. People from all over the country come here and spend time doing other things besides the race track.”

For the next several weekends though, it will be Chippewa Downs and horse racing that will receive a great deal of attention in the Belcourt area. That suits Shaun Herman just fine. Herman is a horse trainer, owner and jockey who thoroughly enjoys the racing season at Chippewa Downs.

“I’ve been around horses all my life and I’ve been riding for the last five or six years here,” said Herman, of Belcourt, during a brief break while exercising his thoroughbred. “My horse is Callin’. He’s a five-year old. I own him, train him, do my own work with him.”

Although horses, trainers and riders come from great distances to compete at Chippewa Downs, horse racing there remains very much a family affair. A number of owners and riders are carrying on a tradition of horse culture developed in the Turtle Mountains.

“The Turtle Mountains have been a mecca for horse racing activity for more years than I care to admit,” said Demontigny. “You are looking at third and fourth generation horse racing enthusiasts all around the track here. They’ve been doing this for years and years.”