By Max Goodwin
Many Sundays throughout spring and summer there is a steady stream of cars that turn down a narrow broken road that appears to lead to nowhere, between west Belton and Loch Lloyd. Visitors follow it deep into the trees and find a clearing of land where a long, straight dirt horse racing track called Carril Los Amigos sits perfectly maintained.
Vaqueros, or cowboys, gather here from across the Midwest for a Sunday tradition brought from Mexico, where most small towns typically have a nearby horse racing track. Horses raised on the local ranches are destined to be raced against each other to prove which is the fastest.
On the first Sunday of June, under a perfect blue sky on a 75-degree day in Belton, two white horses thunder down the soft dirt in a 250-yard race. An 8-year-old white horse named El Pluma Blanca, or the White Feather, finishes first.
A group of men originally from Coahuila, Mexico, run onto the dirt slapping high-fives and pulling out their cell phones to spread the news of the win. Mauricio Rodriguez, El Pluma Blanca’s owner, explains how he drove with his horses from Omaha for the races. He calls his stable of horses “Cuadra Varilleros”.
Nearby, 25-year-old named Heriberto Camacho rides El Pluma Blanca to the very end of the lane and turns around, trotting back to where the men celebrate.
Camacho began racing horses in Morelos, Mexico when he was just 11. Less than a year ago, he came to the United States from Mexico to work for Cuadra Varilleros in Omaha, where he takes care of and rides horses.
He says he takes good care of each of the horses—‘they live better than he does’, he jokes. But he insists he doesn’t have a favorite, he loves to ride them all. “Every ride is beautiful,” he adds.
Always on Sunday afternoons, the men prepare the track, bring the horses and end the weekend with an afternoon of horse racing. A stage is set up near the track and as the racing ends, music begins. Men come to race horses and the women come to dance. Elotes, candy, and toys are sold for the kids. Everybody dressed in their best cowboy hats and boots.
When Bob Faulkner managed Benjamin Ranch, a western-style ranch on East 87th St that had been there for 125 years when it closed in 2014, the ranch gained popularity with Mexican immigrants who lived in the Kansas City area but missed the western vaquero culture they grew up with in Mexico.
“About 20 years ago, we were doing Mexican concerts,” Faulkner said of Benjamin Ranch. “We would host them at the ranch because we had the perfect venue for it. Most of them wanted a bull buck-out and a concert at the same time, so we were perfect for them. We did that for years.”
Until Benjamin Ranch closed to make way for Cerner Corp. and Faulkner moved to open Faulkner’s Ranch, a family-fun event space on Raytown Rd. near Longview Lake, that didn’t quite meet the needs for the concerts and horse racing. But the Benjamin family owned a piece of land that would work. The fencing was moved straight from Benjamin Ranch to Carril Los Amigos, 16210 McDonald Ln.
“Their tradition, back in Mexico, every town has a little race track,” Faulkner said. “And their tradition is, on Sunday afternoons, to go race their horses. So, here they are up in an urban area. It’s something for them to break away from the city, to the country, and relive their culture.”
The crowd grows through the afternoon for a lineup of bands that the audience knows well, bands from Mexico that tour a circuit of places around the United States where people gather for concerts and horse races just like this one. These acts include bands like Banda Carnaval and Calibre 50, both hailing from Sinaloa, Mexico.
After the last of the races finish the bands take the stage and the music begins. The horses calm down from a day of racing by slowly trotting around the lane as if they are dancing to the music.
At a table that sits away from the concert stage, a woman sells hats labeled with each of Mexico’s 30 states. The vendor says she’s done this work for a few years now and enjoys the atmosphere that reminds her of her home in Mexico.