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Fraction of video gaming tax could help racing in Montana


August 8, 2005     E-mail this page to a friend!

by Curt Backa

If you ask a horse race player who is going to win a particular race, you will probably get as many as eight different answers.

If you ask horsemen what it will take to preserve horse racing in the state, you also get as many different suggestions.

In a few weeks the Cascade County Commissioners will make a decision on whether live horse racing should be continued at Montana ExpoPark.

They can decide to continue horse racing as it is, end the county's rocky relationship with the sport, or move in a forward direction by making a move to strengthen and improve the sport.

Coming off a three-day State Fair weekend when the track totaled over $200,000 in handle and entertained large crowds all three days, it will be a tough decision for Lance Olson, Peggy Beltrone and Joe Briggs to make.

They will be hard pressed to find another ExpoPark activity that could produce nearly $300,000 in business.

Or will they decide horse racing is a losing proposition and finally cut the strings?

"Tell the commissioners if they extend it five years, I will start buying horses again," said Leslie Cobell, a former owner and trainer.

The commissioners could also take a rare step forward and put horse racing on solid footing and in the process could possibly realize needed improvements to the aging ExpoPark facility.

The commissioners, surely with the backing of all horsemen involved, could ask our local legislative representatives to sponsor a bill asking for 1 percent of the video gaming machine taxes collected by the state to go to horse racing.

"We had a chance in the early 1980s to get 1 1/2 percent," said Glendive horse owner Mike Haggerty. "And we didn't do it.

"That was a mistake."

A 1 percent windfall from the video gaming machine taxes collected, which has averaged over $50 million annually the last three years, could mean as much as $500,000 per year.

Eighty-five percent of the 1 percent would go directly to capital improvements to the state's existing racing facilities.

The commissioners would then submit a list of projects to the State Board of Horse Racing, which must approve at least one project for each facility each year; and also must provide a to-the-penny accounting of the funds at year's end.

"After paying the bills, we never had any money left over to improve the track," said Ken Kerchal, who was once a director on the Great Falls Horse Racing Association, the last private group to operate the ExpoPark track.

Taking a survey of some of the patrons over the weekend, some of the improvement ideas expressed were new spacious restrooms, upgrading the seating in the grandstand and, of course, "the barns could certainly use some work."

"Do something with the infield of the track; It's an eyesore," said one patron.

My personal favorite is a new permanent tote board that would have instant messaging and a large television screen that could show replays of the races, steward's inquiries, objections, photo finishes and simulcast races from other tracks in the country.

One benefit would be the screen could be used during the rodeo each year to replay rides and record scores.

Over a period of years, all of those projects could be completed and more importantly, race patrons as well as the general public would actually see their gambling dollars at work and not in someone else's pocket.

"What about the horsemen?" said Haggarty. "We have to do something with the purses."

The next 10 percent would go to upgrade purse structures. Right now those purse structures have not changed in the past 10 years. Better purses would ensure horses would continue to race in Montana, and also increase the number of horses. This revenue added to the simulcast funds and live race handle would take a lot of pressure off live race meets.

"We put all of our money into the purses," said Kerchal. "We had to, to keep horses here."

The last five percent would be disbursed to simulcast outlets to help enhance sites, promote simulcast and attract new customers.

A senior citizen with a cat named "Giacomo," should feel right at home going down to her local simulcast outlet and placing a wager on the Kentucky Derby.

Also, the Montana Simulcast Partners, with the additional funds, could look into simulcasting Montana's live races across the state, which could increase the all-important handle at each track.

Right now that cost is too prohibitive.

Curt Backa, a Great Falls Tribune news and sports copy editor, has been covering horse racing in Montana for 17 years. Direct your comments to 791-6569, (800) 438-6600 or e-mail at cbacka@greatfal.gannett.com

Originally published August 4, 2005