The backside culture behind a Morningside Park race day

GILLETTE — Bob Johnson sits inside a barn with his back to a long row of horse stalls and his feet near the edge of a line drawn by the shade.

With a bucket of spent horseshoes to one side, and a large bale of hay to the other, he soaks in the quiet buzz of the stables and animals that surround him.

It’s a Friday before a race day, and he’s on the edge of the backside of Cam-plex Morningside Park. For the hundreds of horse trainers, owners, jockeys, grooms and gallop boys who arrived in Gillette for the six-week horse racing season, that may as well be the edge of the world.

While in Gillette, and wherever they stop next on their horse racing circuits, those members of the racing industry turn the backside full of dirt, hay and stables into a community full of life and spirit.

“There’s a lot to be said about doing what you love to do,” Johnson said. “You’re not exactly doing it out of necessity, you’re doing it out of passion.”

Johnson, 64, was born into the life he found passion for. His father trained race horses and he said his grandfather trained thoroughbreds for the government, way back when, in whichever World War the cavalry needed horses for.

Many of the people cleaning stalls and exercising quarter horses behind the track have their own family history in the sport. Some lineage runs as deep as the bloodlines that define the horses they dedicate their lives to.

That life has given Johnson plenty of memorable days on the race track but even more days spent in the backside of the track, putting in the hours and committing to the lifestyle that leads to the races themselves, and the feeling those moments can bring.

“I’ve made my mind up several years ago,” Johnson said. “The day that — every time you run a horse — you get like,” he drums his fingers on his torso and looks for the word. “Butterflies in your stomach. The day that I don’t get those is when I’ll quit. So, that hasn’t happened yet.”

It hasn’t happened for Johnson and it hasn’t happened for the countless others who roam the country from track to track, following the next race and carrying the enigmatic backside culture with them.

A world exists between the grandstands and backside of a horse racing track.

Looking down at the dirt track, the crowd sees spectacle. The rush of a horse race brings a sense of risk, excitement and even a glimmer of opulence befitting the once sport of kings.

The jockeys and horses partake in the show, decorated in bright colors and leaned into the showmanship involved.

Then as quickly as the race begins, it ends.

That’s when the horses and jockeys, grooms and trainers, step down from the stage and retreat to the world they know best.

At Morningside Park in Gillette, they walk or cart their ways back to the stalls, barns and RVs that come to life and create the backside culture that exists north of the track.

It’s a world reserved for those who commit their lives to a love of the animal and the thrill of the sport.

“It’s very strange,” Johnson said. “They’re all competitive. Everybody’s competitive.”

Despite the air of competition, there’s a community among the men and women committed to the same cause.

“People kind of take care of each other,” he said. “To an extent.”

Tyler Gibbs, a trainer from Logan, Utah, is his family’s third-generation in the horse racing industry. He’s worked with horses his whole life, which is common among those who make the tending to and training of horses their life’s work.

He sees a similar sense of community among those who contribute to the ecosystem of the backside. Most — not all — get along well. But they look out for each other nonetheless.

While circuiting tracks across the country during the season, many will cross paths at different tracks or even find themselves traveling a similar schedule throughout the season.

Like a lot of the trainers at Morningside Park this season, Jess Matt, 47, and his son, Tryston, 26, began their season in Miles City, Montana before coming to Gillette. For a sport and way of life most are born into, Jess got started just 12 years ago.

“I rodeo’d for a living then had to find something else for excitement,” he said.

Everyone gets along behind the track, he said. Seeing as they see the same faces over and over again, at every track they go to, there’s little choice but to get along.

“It kind of all runs together, because you have to do the same things over and over every day,” Jess said.

They see each other at each stop and they compete with each other at each stop.

That element of competition plays a role throughout their different circuits and has taken on a different role as the opportunities to race have become more rare.

“The racing opportunities are a lot less than they were,” Gibbs said. “(It’s) a dying breed, really. That’s why we’re really grateful that Gillette has this for us, it’s been good.”

Gibbs said he used to spend time in Portland, Oregon, for a longer stint of the season. But that track has since shut down.

This year, he’s off to Evanston after Gillette. But it also comes down to where a trainer’s horses will fit.

“The lower level options of racing are getting thin,” he added.

The six-week racing season in Gillette is put on by 307 Horse Racing. Jack Greer, the company CEO, said nearly 600 horses have filled the stalls behind Morningside Park this year.

Fewer opportunities displace the horse racing folk who animate otherwise quiet barns and empty stalls in venues like Cam-plex and Morningside Park. That tightens the opportunities for the grooms and gallop boys, who like the trainers and owners, dedicate their lives to the invisible machinations that lead to race day.

It’s Saturday, the third week of races at Morningside Park, and once again Johnson sits inside the barn. Looking out through its entrance and smoking a cigarette beside the same tall bale of hay, he has his back to the long row of horse stalls behind him.

It’s just like the day before, except this time, it’s race day.

Around noon, about an hour before the races begin, the pre-race routine slowly picks up its pace.

Not far from Johnson, Faster than Hasta, a 8-year-old gelding, stands focused in his stall, staring off into the distance.

“He’s got his game face on,” Johnson said. “He just stands there in that spot.”

The gelding has cleared almost $250,000 in career earnings and will run in the sixth race of the day. But his race day experience differs from Grand Brand Marie, Johnson’s first horse slated for the starting gates.

The 3-year-old filly is scheduled for the second race of the day, which means her time is now.

In anticipation of the race, Jamaal Seestheground enters her stall, wraps a halter onto her head and picks up each leg, one at a time. The 33-year-old groom pulls the dirt and ground from her hooves and paints a treatment onto them.

The occasional sound of a distant horse kicking the side of the stall cries out for attention.

Race day is like every other day for the horses. But horses are smart. Too smart, if you ask Johnson. They pick up on the subtle queues that tell them something’s different.

When the day’s racers are led out of their stalls for a warm bath and given extra time to snack on fresh grass, they know they’ll be headed to the track soon enough.

The ritual continues as Isaac Spottedhorse, a 21-year-old gallop boy and groom, helps Seestheground lay out bridles, halters and new lead ropes beside the stalls. Then the pace is pushed.

“Start cleaning ‘em up, boys,” Johnson said.

With hooves cleaned out and sealed, they begin making their way to each race horse, reaching the top of each head and tying the mane into a simple braid, keeping the loose hairs from drifting into the horse’s eyes mid-race.

Then the PA speakers blare loudly throughout the backside, signaling the 10-minute warning for race No. 2.

Johnson hops on a golf cart and drives down to the track while Seestheground leads Grand Brand Marie, hooded in blue and white, out of the barn.

For Seestheground, that’s when the butterflies kick in.

“If you don’t have that feeling, something’s wrong,” he said. “That’s about all I can say about it. If you’re not nervous, there’s something wrong about it.”

He’s not an owner or a trainer. “Seestheground” does not appear on the race day program alongside the name of the horse he cared for and readied that day. He’s not an owner, but he’s invested nonetheless.

The horses matter to him. In a way, they are a reflection of his own effort and sacrifice.

“This is when your hard work, and days that get tough, start to show,” he said.

The pre-race jitters hit the filly too. Walking along the dirt path to the track entrance, she veered toward oncoming walkers and horses trotting in the opposite direction.

Once at the waiting area, Seestheground walks the filly slowly in a small circle before Johnson comes to help put on her saddle and bright yellow No. 4.

Then Johnson retreated toward the jockey house and smiled as his horse entered the track with jockey David Pinon in control. The trainer watched the pre-race symphony of jockeys and grooms, owners and trainers, spectators and gamblers, all exist in symphony with one another.

It’s the culmination of a lifetime of work, paused in a brief window of possibility. For a moment, every trainer, groom, jockey and gambler gets to believe their horse has a shot to win it all. In that fleeting moment, nothing else matters.

It’s a dance he’s seen too many times to count but enough times to still care.

And it’s when the butterflies still kick in.

Sheila Lee and her family were hiking Monday in Yellowstone National Park when their phones pinged with alerts about the park’s entrances closing.

“We finished what we were doing for the day, and we didn’t think too much about it, but it felt a little weird,” Lee said.

Then the Indiana resident, who was visiting the park with her husband, Ronald, and daughter, Kristina, returned to the family’s camper, parked at the Fishing Bridge RV Park on the edge of Yellowstone Lake.