By Ruffin Prevost
BEAR CREEK, MONT. — Tourism slowed to a trickle in many small towns around Yellowstone after a series of spectacular fires in 1988 burned across nearly one third of the park. So, with a local population of only 83 people in Bearcreek, Mont., bar and restaurant owner Bob “Pits” DeArmond knew he had to do something to attract attention, and visitors. So he called in the pigs.
“We just figured pig races might be the thing,” said DeArmond, owner of the Bear Creek Saloon and Steakhouse, home of Bear Creek Downs.
A natural-born promoter, DeArmond has tried a number of attractions and events around his place, including a sagebrush golf tournament, a velcro wall and iguana races.
But for the last 20 years, Bear Creek Downs has been the site of the most exciting 10 seconds in swine-related bar sports. Five pigs burst (or sometimes wallow) from the starting gate to race (or sometimes waddle) around a 150-foot oval, where a finish-line snack awaits.
This being America, you can also wager on the pigs, which makes the races so much more compelling than if it were a matter of only porky pride and bragging rights.
But making it legal to bet on racing pigs wasn’t easy. In fact, it required an act by the Montana Legislature, a process DeArmond recalls as equal parts exasperating and ridiculous.
“The state Board of Horse Racing had decided they were going to control all animal racing in the state. So we had to pass House Bill 443 to legalize pig races,” he said.
A vocal coalition of gambling opponents, state fair boards, horse racing promoters and animal rights advocates opposed the pigs and their special-interest bill, said former Rep. Alvin Ellis Jr., of Red Lodge, who sponsored the measure.
“Pits is a very humorous guy, and when he testified on the bill, he had a lot of fun and joked around. But he was really fighting for his life,” Ellis said.
Ellis drew on a loophole in state law that allows random betting on sports — like an office Super Bowl pool — and the bill passed. So you can bet on a pig, but you won’t know which one until Pits rolls the dice just before the race to assign random numbers to random pigs.
Over the last two decades, wagering revenues have funded more than $80,000 in scholarships for more than 20 local kids.
Because lizards were not included in the law, DeArmond no longer hosts iguana races. He also has discontinued indoor piglet races that were held during winter.
“There was always some gal who didn’t want me to race iguanas anyway. She thought it was cruel to the iguanas,” he said.
Even after watching them for 20 years, it’s tough to handicap a pig race, DeArmond said.
“Anything can happen. You can have one leading the pack, then all of a sudden, he’ll just stop in the middle of the race. There’s really no way to know. Sometimes the small pigs will beat the big ones who get jammed up in the corner. It keeps it exciting,” he said.
The secret to picking a sure winner is to check with one of the young “sowboys” or “sowgirls” that wrangle the pigs.
“We know which ones are the fastest because we see them in every race,” said sowgirl Keri Nauman, 11, of Red Lodge, adding that an appropriate and discreet gratuity could yield a string of tips on top performers.
The Bear Creek Saloon is an authentic, historic western bar, first built in 1904 as a bar and meat market to serve residents who worked in the nearby coal mines.
Tragedy struck the town in 1943, when an explosion in the Smith mine killed 74 of the 77 men working inside, making it the state’s worst mining disaster.
The char-broiled steaks are great, and there is often a fixed price menu offering burgers, corn, beans and more.
Kids are welcome, and will have a blast checking out the pigs in their “paddock” area before the races.
Outdoor picnic tables around the racetrack are a great place for a drink and a smoke. But dining or drinking within sniffing distance of the pigs and their pens is not for everyone, especially on particularly hot days.
Bear Creek Downs is in the best tradition of Montana’s wild and offbeat bars, Ellis said.
“Montana was a silver, gold and copper mining state, and those people worked hard and played hard. Bars were a big thing in their life,” he said.
“It’s not a lot different with cowboys today. About the only way you get them all together is when there’s a funeral. Why, they have a big get-together at the saloon somewhere, and that’s the only time some people see each other for months on end,” Ellis said.
Pig-picking tips for wagerers:
- Enter the house betting pool, but you could still wait all night and never have your pig drawn for a race. So also set up side bets with friends, picking pigs by name, number or or other criteria.
- The pigs race to get to a food reward, so a hungry pig will likely run faster. Pigs that seem eager for a snack are a good bet. Likewise, a pig that runs to the front of the chute to await being loaded into the gate knows the drill. He is eager to race, and is a likely winner.
- The same pig will wear many different numbers during a night, so learn your pigs by identifying marks, rather than racing silks.
- Tip a “sowboy” or “sowgirl” who wrangles the pigs for inside info on top racers.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].