Racing was gone, the racetrack was going.
When it came time three years ago for Missoula County and its fairgrounds staff to wipe their hands clean of horse racing, Toni Hinton got a call.
“They said come down and if you want any of this race stuff, we’ve got it in a pile. Take what you want, and whatever you don’t want, we’re going to throw it away,” Hinton said.
Hinton’s horse racing roots go back almost 50 years. She was 13 when Don and Virginia Hinton bought their first race horse, and in her 20s when she got her training license.
Hers was the face of the Western Montana Turf Club that she and husband, Jim Johnson, helped establish in 1999. If anyone was going to rescue and save the voluminous pile of Missoula “race stuff” it was going to be Hinton, who had salvaged for safe-keeping some items and records from the jockey room and parimutuel building at the fairgrounds in the years following the last races at the Western Montana Fair in 2010.
Hinton and Johnson stocked the barn behind their home on South Seventh Street West with boxes of jockey silks and saddle cloths, photo albums and posters, winners’ blankets, race programs and paper files, with no clear idea what to do with it all.
“It’s not doing any good being stored here,” Johnson said. “Someday our kids are going to have to go through this stuff, and it’ll all go into the dump anyway.”
On Wednesday, Ted Hughes helped solve their dilemma.
The curator of the county’s Historical Museum at Fort Missoula combed through what he immediately recognized as a valuable historic collection and drove away with a treasure trove.
Brenda Wahler of Helena, whose book “Montana Horse Racing: A History” was released by the History Press last month, picked through it too. She was in town for a book presentation that evening at Fact and Fiction.
Wahler had tapped Hinton’s institutional knowledge of Missoula racing for her book last year and had carted a couple of totes of racing paraphernalia back to Helena for a delighted Montana Historical Society Museum. She took another load back to the Capital City this week.
“We have very little (horse racing) material in the collection, so we’re definitely interested,” Kendra Newhall, registrar at the state museum, said Thursday.
Hughes made the short drive over from the Fort Missoula museum, which also has (or had) almost nothing relating to horse racing.
“It’s the sort of collection we’re looking for, that’s got a coherent, complete story to it and that’s related to a specific piece of Missoula County’s history,” he said.
As Wahler points out, that racing history presumably began when the first horses arrived in western Montana from the West Coast by 1670. The first account was recorded in 1806, when the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition staged races with their Indian hosts at Travelers’ Rest near Lolo.
According to Stan Cohen’s “Western Montana Fair: A Pictorial History,” the first race meet was 70 years later, when prominent Missoula pioneers with names like Higgins, Worden, Eddy and Rankin built a fairgrounds across Russell Street from the current one. It included a one-mile race track.
The first races were probably run there in October 1876 as the nation’s centennial celebration wound down. It would have been a local affair. No railroad ran through Missoula until 1883.
Local racing followed the fortunes of the fairs, which were sporadic at three different sites over the next 75 years or so.
Modern horse racing returned in 1955, a year after the county fair was revived following a hiatus since World War II. It quickly became a staple of August fairs and remained so until 2006.
The Missoulian colored its account of the first day of that 1955 meet with a timeless description on Aug. 19: