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Dave Roepke, Published July 25 2009

Estimated crowd of 5,000 turns out for North Dakota Horse Park opener

With help from her boys and her mother, Christie Erickson was doing a bit of both the things to do at the North Dakota Horse Park: watching and wagering.

Erickson was kept busy by watching her 4-year-old and

6-year-old, who in turn were watching the horses at the track’s opening night Friday. Both boys strained to see the horses hustle down the home stretch in the first race of the season.

Erickson’s mother, Deb Byars, took care of the betting.

On a tip from Austin, the 6-year-old, her pick ended up in the winner’s circle and her $5 wager paid.

“I might be done betting for the night,” Byars said, all smiles from a good start.

The rest of the crowd had plenty of action left. With a line at the gate still present before the third of 11 races, the 2009 opener may have had an attendance of 5,000, General Manager Heather Benson said.

That would well exceed typical crowds of about 3,000.

Erickson comes to the park a few times a year from Wolverton, Minn., where they own 10 horses.

“We’re horse people, and it’s nice for the family,” she said, her sons settling in to child-sized folding chairs.

Others were race-track rookies, like Santana Nez and Rayeann Solano, two students from the University of Arizona interning for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Fargo.

There were many groans and cheers after the results of the second race’s photo finish were announced, but the Arizonan interns didn’t make a peep.

Their trifecta had already come up short.

You’d expect the pair of animal science majors to have an edge, particularly since Nez is in the equine program and has worked for a horse trainer.

But there might be a flaw in their wagering strategy.

“I’m betting the prettiest horses,” Solano said.

They may not be looking for beauty, but a portion of the pony-playing public is under the impression that seeing the mounts parade around the paddocks prior to post time can provide valuable insight. Dozens gathered between the races to check out those next up.

What were they looking for? Tom Cosgrove, 20, of Elko New Market, Minn., hopes to write for a racing magazine some day, and he said to look for a muscular horse that’s calm but alert. Perky ears are good. A foaming mouth is not.

“Body language plays a big part,” Cosgrove said.

Don’t worry if you can’t seem to translate that body language. H. Patrick Weir is chairman of the track’s regulatory body, the North Dakota Racing Commission, and he said there’s no horse smarts needed to enjoy a night at the track.

Excited about Friday’s turnout, Weir was thinking big. He’d like to see the state get a third horse park, adding a track near Medora or Dickinson to those in Fargo and Belcourt.

“It’s kind of dreaming,” said Weir, who concedes it would take five or 10 years to establish a third facility, “but it could happen.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535