Eric Nelson never planned to sell Wyoming Downs.
Then a hedge fund approached him five years ago with an offer he couldn’t ignore. He sold the Evanston track, even though he hadn’t yet realized his vision for Wyoming horse racing.
Last month, Nelson decided to give it another try. He bought back the track for $450,000 at a live auction.
The 43-year-old real estate broker plans to resume live races by 2013 and run rodeo events that customers can wager on, he said. Ultimately, he’d like to open a second track in Cheyenne that could attract customers from northern Colorado.
“We always felt we had some unfinished business up there,” he said. “And we think we can put together a good program that works for everybody.”
Nelson becomes the second businessman this year to bet on a revival in Wyoming’s horse racing industry. In August, a group headed by Eugene Joyce - whose father sold Nelson the track in 1998 - began running races at Sweetwater Downs in Rock Springs.
Before Joyce’s arrival, Wyoming Downs was the state’s only operating track. But it experienced a decline in live race days beginning in 2009, while it was owned by a group headed by Eric Spector.
Spector did not host any live races in 2010 and allowed his off-track betting permit to lapse.
Nelson makes his living buying real estate in down markets. Despite the horse racing industry’s recent struggles, he believes it can thrive in Wyoming.
“We are long term players,” he said.
The Las Vegas resident wants to complete the racing program he set out to develop when he last owned Wyoming Downs. That includes extended racing days and bigger purses to attract more horsemen from other states.
Long-term, Nelson would like to operate a summer racing circuit at county fairs to complement meets at Wyoming Downs and the future track in Cheyenne. He also hopes to convince state lawmakers to enact legislation that would permit slot machines at the track and off-track betting site, or instant racing, in which gamblers can wager on random videos of old meets.
“With the correct legislative changes, we really feel we can put in a long-term stable program for the industry,” he said.
Off-track betting is a possibility in communities that don’t already have simulcast racing. Joyce’s group runs off-track sites in Mills, Cheyenne, Evanston, Rock Springs and Buffalo.
Joyce also attended the Wyoming Downs auction, but said he did not bid on the track. He views Nelson’s return to Wyoming as a positive development.
“It can only help to have a guy like that in Wyoming,” he said.