Norther Nevadans were out in force at various locations to cheer on Lucky since he is partly owned by Carson Valley Inn co-owner Mike Pegram. Pegram himself is no stranger to thoroughbred horse racing since a previous horse he owned, Real Quiet, missed winning the Triple Crown by a nose in one of the three races after having won the other two legs.
Horses and horse racing have been an integral part of this area since the earliest days. At one time in the Truckee Meadows, the southernmost portion was dotted with large ranches such as the Double Diamond and Damonte, to name just two, and horse breeding proliferated along with the vast herds of cattle. Reno’s longest-running special event, the Reno Rodeo, is all about horses and horsemanship. Even polo (the pasture variety) was played here in the old days and there was also an active track. For most of this area the quarter horse was the breed of choice since it was ideal for working cattle. However, there were also a great number of Arabian horse aficionados locally, most notably attorney Roger Wright.
When the Double Diamond ranch (now a South Meadows housing development) was in full sway in the 1950s and ‘60s it was a marvelous place to ride since it covered some 2,200 acres. My first encounter with prize horseflesh occurred on that particular ranch and I got a crash course on how to “cut cattle” and move bunches of them from one grazing field to another.
In addition to working the cattle, there were two race tracks at the far eastern edge of the Double Diamond ranch that offered a great deal of excitement. Both were a quarter mile long and one was a straightaway with the other being an oval. On hot summer days we would routinely engage in two-man races on both courses. Until you have a fine horse under you, going as fast as it can, you cannot imagine what a professional jockey’s life must be like, for only then can you appreciate the amount of strength and energy these four-legged athletes possess.
For all the fun and excitement that the two Double Diamond tracks offered, the top thrill of riding on that ranch was to take the switchback horse trail to the top of Rattlesnake mountain. The rocky route couldn’t have been more than a couple of feet wide and you were encouraged to keep your feet out of the stirrups so you could quickly bail out in case the horse made a fatal misstep. It seemed we always made that trek in the winter months when the snow and moisture made the trail even more challenging.
Another horse-related event, The Sport of Kings, was held in Reno on Dec.11, 1993 when the top professional polo players in the country came to Reno for an indoor match at the Livestock Events Center. Those riders would give any rodeo cowboy a run for his money when it came to “sticking to the saddle.” The strenuous game for the horses requires a new mount for each period of play and all the rules of the ancient sport are there to protect the horse rather than the rider.
Also, back in the middle of the last century there were many trails in southeast and southwest Reno that could take you from home base all the way up the surrounding mountains. Most of those are gone now –– as are most of the horses.
In addition to the local horse activity back in those days, the city of Reno was well represented in the Bay Area when an annual event, called Reno Day at the Races, was held at the Bay Meadows track, located at the Bay Area’s peninsula side. All races for the day were named after Reno establishments, casinos and hotels, with the final race always dedicated to the Mapes Hotel, which had founded the venture. When I was tapped for the first of these Reno Days, I had to journey to San Francisco a few days prior and connect with the public relations man for the track. He took me on a behind-the-scenes tour so I could become familiar with the easiest ways to get from the owner’s box to the winners circle, where representatives of the businesses for whom the race was named could present an emblazoned horse blanket and roses to the victor. During those treks you had to pass through the jockey’s area where the riders were getting ready for the next race. It was there, if you eavesdropped, you could get a pretty good idea of the order of finish in the upcoming race. After that, a trip to the betting window was mandatory.
In addition to the fine Livestock Events Center in Reno, the state also boasts a tremendous equine and special events facility in Las Vegas at the South Point Hotel/Casino. This has become a popular venue since it is connected directly to the hotel and when you enter you are on the mezzanine, with all of the seating below you. Additionally there are 1,200 air conditioned indoor stalls located beneath the seating area.
You might easily call it a “horse heaven.”
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.