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85th Elko County Fair and Race Meet

July 22, 2005     E-mail this page to a friend!

By Steve Ferreira

The 85th Annual Elko County Fair gets underway on August 27 for six exciting days of pari-mutuel horse racing. Racing will be conducted on August 27 and 28, as well as September 2 through 5. Post time is scheduled for 1 p.m. each racing day.


The Elko County Fairgrounds are located nearly equidistant between the cities of Reno, Nevada and Salt Lake City, Utah, in the bustling city of Elko. Itís a little over a four-hour drive from Reno and about a half hour less coming from Salt Lake City.

Alternatively, daily flights connect both cities to Elko. There are many hotels and motels to chose from, but keep in mind that the fair is well attended and hotel rooms may be hard to come by on short notice during fair week. It is also important to note that the nearest hotels outside of Elko are a pretty good drive away to cities like Battle Mountain, Winnemucca, and Wendover. Driving back and forth from any of these cities each day could become a real hassle. So make your hotel reservations early if possible. When visiting Elko during the fair, dress for the high desert climate. It is not unusual for overnight lows to dip into the thirties with daytime highs ranging into the high 80s. Iíve never experienced a rainy day in the three or four race meets I have attended, but several years ago a freak rainstorm did cause the cancellation of the first weekend of racing. Such occurrences are quite rare.

The Track

Featuring Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses racing over a five furlong oval, the Elko County Fair used to be the midway point in a Nevada fair circuit with Ely and Winnemucca, stretching from the middle of August until the middle of September. However, Ely dropped racing from their fair several years ago, and Winnemucca currently showcases mule racing on the first weekend of June. So now Elko goes it alone. With a meet that fortuitously begins a week or two after the close of racing in Wyoming Downs and Les Bois Park (during normal circumstances), Elko attracts runners from both those venues as well as a host of smaller fair tracks in Idaho and Utah, along with the occasional California shipper. The races are well attended, especially on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday of Labor Day weekend. If you are planning a visit to the fair on one of these days, get to the track early to secure a seat in the grandstand, and bring a pal to hold it for you when you are off making your bets. With high purses, large crowds, and shippers galore from far and wide pointing to the race meet, Elko is a little bit like the Saratoga of the intermountain fair circuit.

The Racing

Highlights of the meet include the $35,000 est. Elko Intermountain Quarter Horse Futurity, the $25,000 est. Elko County Quarter Horse Derby, the Utah Sires Fall Futurity, the $24,000 est. Elko County Thoroughbred Futurity, and the $15,000 est. Elko County Thoroughbred Derby. However, the race that perhaps draws the most interest is the Nevada Blackjack Challenge, a claiming event run as the last race of the meet. This race is limited to syndicates formed of local residents with names like the Wewannawin Stables, The Unstable Stable LLC, the Half Fast Stable, the Unable Stable, the Unwanted Stable, the Under The Table Stable, the Undecided Stables, and the Hoof Hearted Stable. These syndicates, made up of several dozen folks each all prominently identified in the racing program, are racing for local bragging rights until the following year.

Place Your Bets

Considering Elko is a gambling city in a gambling state, it is a little surprising how low the per capita handle is at the fair. On my last foray to Elko, my back of the napkin calculations indicated somewhere in the vicinity of $20 a person, or around one $2.00 wager per race. Heavy hitters these folks are not. But the large crowds ensure pretty nice pools (by fair standards) to wager into. In addition to usual win, place and show offerings, the track offers quinella and exacta wagering on all races, trifecta wagering on most races, and an early and late daily double. The highest handles, which can range to more than $5000 a race, will take place on the last three days of the meet; the smallest handle will be on the one Friday afternoon of racing.

Full fields are the norm for the first weekend, when the trials for the following weekís stakes races take place. Last year, they actually ended up with fourteen races on the first Sunday of the meet. The second weekend is a bit of a mixed bag. Spreading the horse population over four days tends to create a number of short fields. However, in the past the racing secretary has always done a good job of making these races competitive.

As with many limited run fairs in the west, placing a bet for the experienced handicapper can be a bit of a challenge. In years past Elko has used the Intermountain Tote machines, which print out a ticket that looks a little like the receipt from the local gas station self service pump. While these machines can print out most any bet that you could want, if you run into an inexperienced mutuel clerk (which most are), you may end up feeling frustrated trying to get your wagers in. Consequently, to fully enjoy a day of racing at the Elko County Fairgrounds (as well as many other fairs I might add), the most important task (besides scoping out the dayís races, of course) is to find the right mutuel clerk. In my experience, this is most easily accomplished by going to any window at random for the first race of the day and attempting to bet a trifecta part wheel. Then watch and see if the clerk breaks out into a nervous sweat before calling in the reinforcements. If not, you have found your mutuel clerk for the rest of your stay; memorize what he or she looks like so that you always return to the right window. If the clerk is bewildered by what you are asking to bet, watch and see what clerk they ask for assistance. Then go to the more knowledgeable clerk the rest of your trip. It works every time, and it will help you from becoming a pariah to those in line behind you waiting patiently to bet $2 to show on the favorite. In any case, lines at the windows at this track can be very long, so bet early if you do not want to run the risk of being shut out. Tickets from one day can be cashed the next day, so if you have to leave a little early you will be able to collect your winnings the following day. Towards this end, the track normally has a board set up in the mutuel windows bay which displays the results of all of the meetís races.

I can offer one general handicapping tip to assist you in your day of wagering at the Elko County Fair: in my experience, Elko has had a pronounced inside speed bias for races around the oval, with closers and those pressing the pace from the outside at a distinct disadvantage. A cursory look at last yearís Thoroughbred races reveals that nearly two thirds of the winners were in front at the first call, and few winners were able to come from far out of it to score. Consequently, paying close attention to inside speed horses may prove to be financially profitable.

The Fair

Horse racing is not all that there is to offer at the Elko County Fair. Beginning on September 1, a slew of typical county fair events starts, with livestock shows, produce competitions and the like. There is also a small carnival; basic food and refreshments are available under the grandstand as well as at booths scattered throughout the carnival area. The Elko County Fair also does an outstanding job of seamlessly integrating team sorting and branding contests taking place in the track infield throughout the day into the race card. Races are never delayed by these stock horse events, which provide an additional source of entertainment.

Offtrack Entertainment

For your after-racing pleasure, Elko has several casinos. A few even offer sports betting, which means during fair week you can place a wager on your favorite baseball and college football team, or take a stab if you dare on the final weeks of the NFL preseason. In years past, replays of the nightís races can be watched on a continuous loop at one of the local casinos several hours after the racing card has been completed. Check your program for further information.
Some notable places of interest in the Elko vicinity that may be worthy of a visit include the Northeast Nevada Museum, centrally located in town, which features an eclectic mix of historical artifacts, Nevada's largest mounted collection of wild animals from around the world and photographs by world renowned photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, among others. Also nearby is the Western Folklife Center, which is best known as the home of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. For nature lovers, Lamoille Canyon is located on the outskirts of town, with substantial hiking possibilities; a little farther to the south is the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Access to the refuge requires crossing Harrison Pass on a very well maintained gravel road, and may also involve driving through and around a herd of loitering cattle which seem distinctly nonplussed by vehicular traffic. While the refuge roads area also generally in reasonable condition, low clearance vehicles and RVs should use them at their own risk. Bird watching is always available at the refuge, as is fishing; however, check ahead to see what the water levels are in the refuges impoundments before heading out the latter purpose.

All in all, I heartily recommend an outing to the Elko County Fair for racing fans and non-racing fans alike.