ELKO – In a neck-and-neck finish with a horse called Classy Cove, It’ll Be Fine won the last race of the Elko County Fair: the Blackjack Challenge.
Seven horses ran the event, all of them remaining pretty close together the entire time.
“It’s been eight years since we’ve won,” said John Lemich, a member of Unstable Stables. “This has been fun.”
Unstable Stables was the very first syndicate. Others followed suit. Over the years the groups have played pranks against each other, hosted tailgate parties and enjoyed the spirit of competition. One year a group even took a picture of a mule and claimed they were entering it in the race.
Giouvani Puccinelli volunteered this year to weigh the jockeys.
“My dad and Dennis Gilligan started this,” he said, referring to the syndicates.
The Blackjack Challenge is a favorite among syndicate members and the entire crowd. The race is a mile long with the horses running around the track twice.
Jockey Daniel Aguilar brought the winning horse around the bend and past the finish line as the crowd roared. After the race, trainer Ron Carter and the numerous syndicate members crowded onto the racetrack for photos and bragging rights.
The purse money for the race is $3,000, according to race secretary Terry Crystal. That doesn’t amount to much when the split is made amongst so many people, but members carry the flame of victory all year long.
“We have been patient runners-up for a long time,” Unstable Stables member Jan Petersen said. “We give credit to Dennis and Carla Gilligan for their acute and keen horse sense in picking our horse.”
“There were only seven syndicates this year,” Crystal said. “There are usually 10. I guess people get old and broke.”
Jockey Todd Thomas, an unusually tall professional from Malad, Idaho, said he has ridden in the Elko races many times. He rode 33 races this weekend.
Thomas rode Shakalov, a 3-year-old and a longshot in the Black Jack Challenge. This was his first time riding in the challenge.
“There’s really no money in it,” Thomas said. “It’s just a ‘thing.’ But it’s neat to go through the barn area and see their big parties and the big deals they make.”
Thomas first started galloping horses in 1989. He got his racing license in 1990. At 46, he is older than most jockeys that ride in Elko. He has broken several bones in accidents during his career as a rider.
One time he broke his back when his horse fell forward, breaking its front legs. After that accident Thomas was out of commission for awhile. The horse had to be put down.
“My dad raised me to be a team roper and a cowboy,” Thomas said. “Someone asked my dad if he had a kid who could gallop race horses and my dad said, ‘Todd can do it.’ One day I just got thrown into riding a race because they were short on jockeys. I got the taste of the speed and winning races. I keep trying to quit but it doesn’t seem to catch.”
Thomas lost his “real job” three years ago and decided he was just going to ride horses for a year. He is still at it.
“I am having the best year I have had in a long time. It makes you really want to keep going. I am known as the six-foot jockey that can still make weight in races,” he said with a laugh.