Controversial horse races

Neighbors upset with horse races on McHenry County farm
By Tara Garcia Mathewson

horse racing

Fans line up along the fence before the start of the next horse race at Poker de Ases Ranch and Training Center in McHenry County. Photo by Tara Garcia Mathewson.

It’s a Sunday afternoon and nearly 2,000 people are gathered on a horse farm in Union in McHenry County.

Music flows from some of the parked cars and trucks, as family and friends mingle, some buying Mexican food from vendors lined up in tents.

All of a sudden a sense of expectation rises in the crowd.

People start moving toward the event that drew them to this farm field off the edge of suburbia: A makeshift horse race.

The crowd gathers at a fence that separates them from a 350-yard straightaway, where a sandy track with a center divider runs between a closed starting gate and the finish line. Two horses and their jockeys are ready and waiting behind the gate.

Children press against the fence as their parents and older siblings stand over them. With a bang, the metal gates unlock and the horses bolt. The crowd, calm and quiet just minutes before, jumps and cheers as the animals race by. Just 14 seconds later, it’s over.

The cheers subside, the crowd goes back to mingling, as some settle friendly wagers. It will be another 30 minutes before people start moving toward the fence again.

Luís Méndez Jr. and his family own the horse farm in Union. It’s called Poker de Ases Ranch and Training Center. Ever since Méndez, his father and a family friend bought it a year ago, they’ve held three horsing events, all on Sunday afternoons. They’re not official races, but training exercises where quarter horse owners can see how their animals perform.

“It’s like a minor league kind of thing,” said Méndez, who charges $25 admission to men while women and children get in free. “The owners want to see how good their horse is. If the horse is good enough, then they go to the racetrack.”

For the crowd, it’s an excuse for a family outing. As the only Latino training center around, Spanish-speaking people come from across the Midwest for the chance to watch the horses and revel in a shared way of life.

“Horse racing is a culture,” Méndez said. “It has its own set of rules and traditions in the way you set up a race. It’s something that is very, very prominent, especially in the northern part of Mexico.”

Yet as tranquil as the afternoons are for some, many neighbors in Union and several members of the McHenry County Board do not share in the joy of the events.

Neighbors point to traffic congestion, noise and litter as nuisances they shouldn’t have to deal with; county board members wonder if they should be able to tax the profits.

Read the full story here.

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