by HALIE BERRY
The Utah State Fair has been a cornerstone of Utah history even before Utah became a state in 1896. The original development of the fair was to promote “self-sufficiency” within agricultural production. The first fair, known as the “Deseret Fair,” was held in October 1856 under the supervision of the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society.
After its opening, the fair received little financial help from the Territorial Legislature and moved to various locations. Nevertheless, it was able to persevere as an annual event and in 1902 the Legislature purchased 65 acres for the purpose of assisting the local community. (Utah State Fair History)
In this pursuit, the fair had become a favored part of the horse racing industry in Utah. Horse races were featured on a new track and a covered grandstand welcomed spectators dressed in their best attire to enjoy the event. By 1909, horse racing in Utah developed similar rules and regulations to that of other organizations around the country and continued to gain increased popularity. Despite the success of the horse racing industry, there was rising opposition against it. Track owners were considered biased in the handling of wagering and during that time bookmakers were hired by the track. Utah had no state agency to oversee and/or regulate bookmaking of the horse races. (Westergren, 7)
By 1913, the belief of “dishonesty” within horse racing clouded the industry and the Salt Lake Herald and the Deseret News wrote lengthy editorials in 1909 and 1913 about the problems horse racing caused and why it should be banned. Westergren summarizes the reasons they offered, including: “The ‘fixing’ of races by dishonest horse owners and jockeys who ‘fleeced the public’ rather than providing, good, honest sport; the loss of spectators’ money in wagering at the track, depriving honest local merchants of sales and profits; the rise in crime that generally accompanied racing meets; and the moral impact of horse race gambling on individuals and families.” By February 17, 1913, Governor William Spry signed an anti-racing law initiated by Charles R. Mabey. The legislature passed the bill after a month-long “acrimonious debate.” (Westergren, 8)
In February 19, 1925, the Salt Lake Telegram reported that Representative Charles Redd had proposed a bill to the Legislature to legalize pari-mutuel betting and horse racing under a new state horse racing commission. Redd believed that horse racing was “the sport of kings” and should be re-established in the Utah industry. The bill proposed that the governor appoint a three-member committee to control the pari-mutuel betting system under new regulations by the commission. The bill gained traction among the legislature, but in March 1925, according to the Salt Lake Telegram, Sen. Herbert S. Auerbach considered the races “to be the most vicious forms of gambling and would bring into the state the worst riffraff of its kind.” This quote came after Auerbach admitted to not being “strait-laced” and dipping his hand in betting on a few races at the track.
A large crowd ventures to the Utah State Fairpark to watch horse racing in 1907. Shipler Commercial Photographers Collection, Mss C 275, Utah State Historical Society. Reprinted with permission.
Despite some pushback, the House Legislature passed the proposed bill on March 7, 1925, by a vote of 41 to 4 with ten members absent and by March 11, 1925, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 12 to 5 with three absent. The law was signed by Governor George Dern and became effective on May 12, 1925. For the first time in twelve years, the horse racing industry was revived and the pari-mutuel betting system was now legal. Many who approved the bill believed horse racing was a “clean” and “respectable” sport and that the new law would encourage breeders to produce competitive offspring, bringing in a renewed source of revenue into the state. (Westergren, 8-9)
By April 1925, the fairgrounds needed improvements. Fred Dahnken and William P. Kyne, well-known men in the horse racing industry who conducted successful races in Phoenix and Reno, proposed a deal with the state fair board and were approved for a $60,000 track deal to develop horse racing over the next ten years at the Utah State Fairgrounds. According to the Salt Lake Telegram, this agreement included improvements to the existing grandstand, paddocks, jockey room, horse stalls, and fences.
Two racers wait outside the fairgrounds in 1908. Shipler Commercial Photographers Collection, Mss C 275, Utah State Historical Society. Reprinted with permission.
As opening day drew nearer, things were in full swing to prepare for the event. The Salt Lake Telegram reported on June 6, 1925, that a new chute would be added to the track, extending the length of the race to run up to a three-quarter-mile. Artisans put final touches on the barns, pari-mutuel booths were set up, and jockeys and exercise boys warmed up horses on the track. On June 8, the Salt Lake Telegram announced the program of the State Fair’s “Inaugural Day” and informed readers that July 2 would kick off the horse racing season with a $1,500 purse.
The Salt Lake Telegram reported on July 1: “Several carloads of horses, in prime condition, arrived at the track today and yesterday and still more are due this evening which will swell the number of equine nobility to participate in the coming meeting to a full 400 head.” C. B. Irwin, owner of at least 21 thoroughbreds at the races, believed his top horse that he called the “route-goer,” Lizette, would be the one to beat. “He would run her from the car to the track, that’s how good he thinks Lizette is,” observed the newspaper. At last, July 2, one of the most anticipated days of the year, arrived and the Utah State Fair officially opened the races under the new Horse Racing Commission. A large number of people ventured to the track to take in and bet on some of the top thoroughbreds competing.
The new system controlled the odds of the race; no jockey, bookie or horse owner could “fix” the race ahead of time. The minimum wager was $2.00. Bettors could choose from three types of tickets to place on a horse: win, place, or show, similar to other races. According to Westergren, “This ticket system was universally used at all tracks where the pari-mutuel system was functioning. The rules placed no limit on the number of tickets a bettor could buy. He might put down money on every horse in the race if he chose. However, payoff came only if the participant held a ticket for a horse that finished in one of the first three positions.” Tickets purchased from a pari-mutuel betting machine were cashed in to verify receipt of the wager amount. Odds were based on the wagers at the track and the money collected from their bets, rather than fixed, random odds by a bookie. Therefore, bettors wagered against themselves. Once expenses were paid to the state and licensed track owner, the remainder of the pool was divided among those with winning tickets. (Westergren, 12, 10)
The Salt Lake Telegram reported on July 3, 1925, “Women dressed in their fine summer clothes added a touch of color to the scene. The pari-mutuel machines received a good play, a fact which testified by the clicking one constantly heard as wagers were made.” The day was considered an overall success, according to William P. Kyne, the general manager of the State Fair races. On July 3, 1925, the Salt Lake Telegram highlighted, “Running strongly to the front, Lizette never placed the issue to doubt and ran to victory with more than two lengths to spare,” living up to Irwin’s expectations. It was estimated that between 3,500 and 10,000 attended opening day, including Heber J. Grant, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Governor George H. Dern, Salt Lake City Mayor C. Clarence Nelsen, and several other government officials. (Westergren, 14)
Overall, the races were financially successful as they hoped; from May 12, 1925, through the end of 1926, it was reported that racing brought in an additional $129,646 in total revenue. Business and community support was at an all-time high. But by February 1927, public concern with ethical issues of horse racing and betting affected support for the sport. Just two years after the passage of Representative Redd’s bill, pari-mutuel betting would again be banned by the Utah Legislature after accusations of corruption. (Westergren, 15)
Horses and buggies race to an exciting finish in 1904. Shipler Commercial Photographers Collection, Utah State Historical Society. Reprinted with permission.
In March 1992, the Davis County Clipper reported that Utah horse breeders had filed a petition to get pari-mutuel betting on the ballot, which would give counties the right to decide whether or not they would approve pari-mutuel wagering at horse races in their jurisdiction. According to the article, “The funds collected in the pari-mutuel wagering will be used to support the public, promote economic growth and reduce taxes.” Even though the bill made it on the ballot, late opposition from the LDS church prevented the bill from passing.
It’s been 90 years since pari-mutuel horse race betting has been legal. However, the positive impact it had on Utah’s economy shows the progressive role it can play today. It’s reported that the Utah State Fairgrounds is in a state of distress. Brian Grimmett of KUER reported on March 27, 2014, that an audit by the Utah State Auditor found the Utah State Fair Corporation is highly subsidized compared to similar state fairs around the country: “The legislature has given the fair more than $6.8 million since 2004. Meanwhile, attendance has decreased almost every year since hitting a peak in 2008.” Many of these concerns are due to the crumbling infrastructure. Legislative auditors are concerned if a plan to update and improve fair park facilities isn’t in place, the State Fair will be destitute in a few years, reported Judy Fahys of KUER.
The horse racing/breeding industry is an established sport in Utah. Allowing pari-mutuel betting or a similar system would be an incentive for members of the community to get involved, support the races and generate a year-round source of income to update and maintain current buildings at the state fairgrounds. Pamela Wood of the Baltimore Sun reported on March 18, 2016, that a new track deal allowed off-track betting at the Maryland State Fair all year. It was projected to generate upward of $500,000 per year in revenue for the Maryland Jockey Club, horsemen, and building upkeep and maintenance. Passing a similar bill here in Utah would allow the state fair to create new sources of revenue while continuing the tradition of the fairgrounds for future generations.
Halie Berry graduated in May 2017 from The University of Utah with a Bachelor of Science degree in mass communication with an emphasis in sports broadcasting.
“Huge Throng Thrilled as Lizette Wins Feature of Opening Day,” Salt Lake Telegram, July 3, 1925.
“Track and Equipment is Ready for Opening Event,” Salt Lake Telegram, July 1, 1925.
“Program Announced for the First Five Days’ Racing,” Salt Lake Telegram, June 8, 1925.
“Fair Grounds Race Track to Have ‘Chute Added,’” Salt Lake Telegram, June 6, 1925.
“Fair Grounds Track Deal is Made,” Salt Lake Telegram, April 15, 1925.
“Senate Overrides Dern’s Veto of McCarty Election Measure; Utah Horse Racing Bill Passes,” Salt Lake Telegram, March 12, 1925.
“Solon Revives Horse Races in House Measure,” Salt Lake Telegram, February 19, 1925.
“Horse Breeders Want Pari-Mutual Vote,” Davis County Clipper, March 31, 1992.
“Our History.” Utah State Fair, http://utahstatefair.com/history
Fahys, Judy. “State Fair Park’s Future Remains Uncertain.” KUER, June 19, 2014, http://kuer.org/post/state-fair-parks-future-remains-uncertain#stream/0
Grimmett, Brian. “Utah State Fair Under-Attended and Over-Subsidized.” KUER, March 27, 2014, http://bit.ly/2pm6r2R.
Luhm, Steve. “History of Horse Racing in Utah.” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 2, 2006, http://bit.ly/2plUp9n.
Westergren, Brian N. “Utah’s Gamble with Pari-Mutuel Betting in the Early Twentieth Century.” Utah Historical Quarterly 57, no. 1 (Winter 1989): 4-23.
Wood, Pamela. “Community, state fair reach deal on off-track betting at the fairgrounds,” Baltimore Sun, March 18, 2016, http://bsun.md/21ALmMz.