WEST FARGO — The horse racing lifestyle has never been one for the faint of heart. Racing horses involves a lot of hard, gritty work in the heat and the cold, some talent and a little bit of luck. It can reach highs of winning against all odds and cause utter heartbreak without explanation. But for horsemen who stick with it, whether as a hobby or career, they will tell you that it's "in their blood," and its ran through generations of their family line.
Across the country, the economics of owning a racehorse can run high, but small tracks such as North Dakota's Chippewa Downs in Belcourt and the North Dakota Horse Park in Fargo can offer newcomers a place to start, whether it's for those who have grown up in the industry or those who have always had the dream of being a part of the unique world.
'All I ever wanted to do'
On July 14, 2017, just nine days after his 16th birthday, Evan Herman rode his first race as a licensed jockey at the North Dakota Horse Park.
Years before, a Forum photographer captured Herman dressed in his best blue jeans and cowboy hat riding along from the stands, waiting for his chance to hit the dirt himself.
Herman grew up riding horses at this childhood farm near Belcourt, N.D. His father, Robert Lee Herman Sr., and grandfather Robert (Butch) Herman are both trainers and run horses in North Dakota. His uncles Shaun Herman and Jeremy Herman have also earned their jockey cards.
"As I grew up and watched my uncles [ride], I always wanted to be a part of it and be my dad's jockey," Herman said. "I've had a lot of help from everyone around me. Luckily, I have a lot of family members that were always there to help me and tell me what to right and what I'm doing wrong."
Although Herman rides both the sprinters as well as distance runners, he admits he is partial to quarter horses, the breed he grew riding with his family. His dad now trains both quarter horses and thoroughbreds.
Quarter Horse races are notoriously difficult for jockeys to navigate, as the quick sprints only average 15 to 18 seconds.
"I think there's nothing like the rush of a Quarter Horse," Herman said.
As a jockey, on any breed of horse, it's Herman's job to help guide the horse from choosing when to change speed or leads into a turn to guiding the horse away from trouble and congestion down the lane.
"[The horses] are our partners for our job, they help us make a living so we have to help them make a living," Herman said. "We never want to see one get hurt or stepped on. We want to keep them safe just as they keep us safe."
While they work as a team to keep each other safe, accidents can happen which can lead to some worrying by family and friends.
"My mom, she tries to tell me all the time, you have to keep yourself as safe as possible," Herman said. "My mom is my agent. If she finds out a horse is bad, she'll say no. She doesn't like when I get hurt, but it's just a part of the game. It's not if you get hurt, it's just when."
Herman is looking forward to the remaining two weekends of racing in Fargo, including a ride in the upcoming quarter horse futurity, a race with a larger purse for the youngest of running horses, those age 2.
After Fargo, he may return to ride at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., where he "had a blast" finishing out the season last year as a rider. Around October, Herman will return home once again to help his family with the young horses as well as some in Minnesota, before starting the racing seasons all over again when racing begins in the spring in Nebraska until Chippewa Downs returns in June.
"It's like a family here, and you don't have the same pressure and stress here," Herman said. "You can ride how you want to ride. That's the best part about around here."
As a boy, Darren Nieswaag spent many summers running around the backside of the tracks in Fessenden, N.D., and Aberdeen, S.D. Years later, on Saturday, June 17, Nieswaag and his wife, Steph, were once again on the backside of a North Dakota track. Now, their day was spent preparing their filly, Lil Miss Zak — a bay thoroughbred the couple bred and raised — for the $15,000 maturity at the North Dakota Horse Park, where her race would be the major attraction. The betting public watched one of their favorites outduel Krews Pass and carry the Nieswaag name again past the finish first.
Nieswaag, who earned his trainer's license in Fargo about five years ago, is carrying on the legacy of his father, Dennis, and grandfather Bert Nieswaag of Pettibone, N.D.
Bert Nieswaag, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 100, was a well-known horseman across North Dakota not only for his extended knowledge of racing and the lines of horses he continued to track until his death, but also for his enduring smile and kindness to all he gave his time to in an effort to expand the interest of horse racing in North Dakota.
Decades later, Bert's last owner's license can still be found at local tracks, tucked safely into Darren's wallet.
Although Darren stepped away from racing for a couple years, his father remained an active owner of racehorses and eventually they began raising the babies from a mare his grandfather once owned and eventually took to running again.
"We just kind of jumped back into racing with her," Darren said.
Darren and Steph make their home in Mandan, N.D., and house their horses at the Nieswaag ranch southwest of Pettibone, N.D.
"It's always nice to have a track in North Dakota, it's nice to see the family watch your work coming to life," Darren Nieswaag said.
Although they could expand their racing team, Nieswaag said he will likely stay with two runners each year.
"Two is a good number, it's manageable," he said.
Nieswaag hopes to run his two sisters once more before the Fargo meet ends. While Miss Zaky Pie will likely retire, Lil Miss Zak seems to have just hit her stride in 2021 and may return to run more at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg or another track such as Prairie Meadows in Altoona, Iowa.
For owner Bryton Dewald, racing might have skipped a generation but it landed hard in the 22-year-old.
"I always just loved horses, and we never had any growing up," Dewald said. "My grandpa raced and I would always hear stories about that so when I was old enough, I wanted to have horses."
Dewald's maternal grandfather raced horses and his great-grandfather was a trainer. Dewald said his paternal grandfather also loved to gamble.
"So maybe that had something to do with it," Dewald said with a chuckle.
Dewald, who grew up in Jamestown, N.D., and later helped his father farm near Fredonia, N.D., got his chance to own his own his first racehorse when he found Ramblin V Eight, a 2016 bay mare bred in North Dakota and sold as a yearling in Bismarck.
Dewald said "V-8" caught his eye with her strong build that includes a shapely hip quarter horses are known for and as a granddaughter of top stud, Corona Cartel. He later bought her for $2,500, a relatively low price for a race prospect and the two began their racing careers together.
In her second start, Ramblin V Eight won the 2018 Northern Plains Futurity at Chippewa Downs with purse of $22,500, one of the richest races for Quarter Horses in North Dakota. As of this week, Ramblin V Eight has won 11 of 23 races, placing second four times and once third and earned nearly $60,000.
From there, Dewald began adding horses to his stable, racing about 10 in 2021 in not just North Dakota but in Minnesota, Iowa, Oklahoma and California.
"We just ended up buying more and more and I don't know it turned into what it was," Dewald said.
While other local trainers and owners have picked up both quarter horses and thoroughbreds, Dewald is happy to stick with "America's horse." No matter how many times his horses load into the gate, it's those tense, hopeful moments that keep him on the track.
"It's the excitement when the gates open, there's nothing like it," Dewald said. "And then to see how all of your hard work pays off."
When not helping his family farm land, most of which is near Fredonia, Dewald spends his time at the races. This year, he currently has 10 horses running at tracks in North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Oklahoma and California.
It may not have started in the family but it has become a family affair. Dewald's aunt, Kari Nagel who once worked as a groom at Remington Park in Oklahoma, has helped with the horses. Dewald's parents, Jill and Tarin Dewald, can be seen in the stands at nearly all races that include a Dewald horse.
"They are always there for me to cheer me on," Dewald said. "They've always been supportive."
Earlier this year, Dewald was able to make another lifelong dream come true when he obtained a horse farm in Jones, Okla., a premiere location for breeding and training quarter horses.
Yet, North Dakota will remain his home base and a favorite place to run, where his backside friends and team members have become another family.
"It's always fun to go here and see everybody," he said. "You can learn the ropes here, at these tracks everybody helps you out a little more. The bigger tracks they expect you to know everything."
Dewald hopes to race Ramblin V Eight one more time in Fargo before she will retire and become a mother.
Racing will continue at the North Dakota Horse Park Friday, July 23, and Saturday, July 24, and July 31 - Aug. 1.