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Reply to Topper's Comments

August 7, 2005     E-mail this page to a friend!

The following is a response from Peggy Buffington Catonie to Topper's Comments on the recent "one track" concept for Montana published on The Racing Journal website on July 28.

Topper's Comments:
The Montana Board of Horse Racing (MBOHR) conducted a meeting today via conference phone hook-up to discuss a "one track" concept proposed by Sam Murfitt, Executive Secretary of the MBOHR.
His proposal is to conduct 30 days of live horse racing at a single track in Montana and to use all simulcast revenue to support that track. The aim seems to be to give Billings the only race dates and eliminate racing at every other facility in Montana.

The reasons for coming to this conclusion, as he explained, seem to be:
1. Putting all simulcast revenue at one track could raise the purse structure high enough to attract more horses to come to Montana.

Peggy's comments: And where would they be stalled? The horses that are here now are in barns that haven’t been fixed in years. People keep coming back and adding a piece of plywood, here and there, to keep horses in their own stall. Management knows horsemen will put up with it, so the money goes elsewhere and the facilities for the ones who are "putting on the show" just keep deteriorating.
The track surface at Billings seemed to be the worst in the state, according to horsemen the past few years. This could also include race offices, bathroom facilities, and a steward stand in Billings that is weighed down with pounds and pounds of pigeon droppings the last time I was there.

Topper's Comments:
2. One track could improve the facilities to accommodate early training.

Peggy's comments: If they don’t do it now, what would make them do it in the future? The money available that is spoken of is purse money, not money to improve the racing facility.

Topper's Comments:
3. Horsemen would not have to travel.

Peggy's comments: A day of travel and a new track and different atmosphere is a good thing many times. It changes the dynamics when horsemen/women leave the problems of one track and go to another and fresh faces and a new attitude are present. It’s uplifting, by the end of a meet in one place. Each track has its own special races, many of which have been run for years, and certain horses are pointed to those races all season long.

Topper's Comments:
4. The commissions and fair boards of the other tracks seemed unwilling to offer support for racing and they indicated to him at these meetings that they would like to see racing gone.

Peggy's comments: Racing has good support in many places around Montana. Editorials in the Highline newspapers indicated that attendance was down a huge amount at Marias Fair this year, and no horse racing was the reason. No horse racing is the beginning of the end of a fair.

Topper's Comments:
5. The only way to save racing is to raise the purses, and the only way to raise purses is to use all the simulcast revenue at one track.

Peggy's comments:That will come no closer to ‘saving’ racing than retaining the fair meets and dividing the available money. The Montana legislature needs to get behind horse racing and that is the job of the Board and the elected officials and local legislators……to present the benefits of racing and show that this can be a viable industry in Montana, along with other agricultural industries. There can be ways to fund it, including percentages of the casino games and passing laws that allow betting via TVG (with Montana racing having some percentage of money bet on national and international races).

Topper's Comments:
Sue Austin, Chairman of the Board of Horse Racing, then stated that:
1. She didn’t want to be chairman of the board that killed horse racing.
2. That the board was doing every thing they could do to save racing.
3. That racing management needs to step up to the plate and do their part.
4. That the only way to save racing is to raise purses.

Peggy's comments: Has Ms. Austin contacted her own representatives and lobbied for racing? What has she done to see that horse racing received some percentage of the gaming in Montana? Has she looked into the possibility of lawfully allowing betting via TVG? What steps has she taken to "save" racing?

Topper's Comments:
Track management then had an opportunity to express their opinion on the "one track" concept:
1. Billings supported the idea and stated that they were ready to commit to 5 years and provide the track improvements needed to make it work.

Peggy's comments: Billings has never been a pro-racing track and I wonder if they are under the impression that the money available for the ‘one track’ concept would go to the facility and not to purses? The horses can’t even get on the racetrack because of track meets and management has never had any qualms about keeping the horses off. Horses have been at the bottom of the list for some time. A meet in Billings would fail in less than the 5 years they indicated they would commit to. Even at the present time, Billings can barely run a race meet when Missoula’s fair and Crow Fair overlaps, because the horses are elsewhere. If people wanted to run at Billings, they’d be there and they aren’t.

Topper's Comments:
2. Great Falls, Missoula, Kalispell and Miles City all indicated they wanted to continue racing, but if racing was taken away from their fairs, the space used for the track would soon be replaced on their fairgrounds with something else and racing would never come back.

Peggy's comments: Of course the space would be used for other things. The barns would be torn down and the racetrack leveled. No fair meet is going to maintain the facility for something that is taken away.

Topper's Comments:
4. Scott Mader, Missoula Fair Manager: Plans are underway to renovate their facility and build 400 stalls and fix the infrastructure to comply with regulations.

Peggy's comments: Actual plans and ideas and acting upon them for the future. Unlike Billings.

Topper's Comments:
5. Bill Nooney, Montana Simulcast Partners: "If there is only one track, why would other cities want to continue conducting simulcasting when bettors can stay home and bet on TVG?"

Peggy's comments: Right on, Bill. I can’t imagine people driving to Billings to bet on the horses. Betting on the horses in Montana is a local thing and a county fair atmosphere, where people know their favorites and have bet them, year after year. They go with their friends and family and spend the day…and their money. They won’t drive to Billings to do it.

Topper’s comments:
After listening to two hours of discussion and no conclusion (no ideas and no action) other than meetings planned for Missoula and Billings to continue the discussion, I will offer my opinion.

First of all, unless the Montana Legislature passes a bill to construct a racetrack and full casino facility with a percentage of the gross going to support horse racing, one track running all summer will never happen.

Montana racing was, is, and needs to be a place to start young horses and a place to race horses that are not fast enough to be racing for the big purses at better tracks.

Peggy's comments: It’s also a place where owners can travel to watch their own horses, either ones they bought or ones they bred, compete against each other for purse money they’ve provided with their payments into futurities or derbies. They all hope to get a good return, but not many do. Over the years, this hasn’t changed much, but despite that, they keep coming back and putting on the show.

Topper's Comments:
Montana racing is "fair racing" entertainment. There is not a city in Montana that can maintain 120 days of racing without some major financial input like a percentage of the lottery or a casino to support it.

Peggy's comments: That’s what we should be shooting for.

Topper's Comments:
Montana needs a racing circuit. A few days in Miles City, the month of June for Helena, July in Great Falls, August for Missoula and Kalispell, and then Billings could run from their fair until the end of September.

Peggy's comments: See how easy it is to leave out Shelbys’ Marias Fair? Just like Fort Benton and Helena……gone.

Topper's Comments:
Purses are not the answer. Sure everyone wants as much as you can get, but you have to be able to run fast enough to get it. How many trainers have hauled their horses to tracks where the purses are great and their horses finish out of the money and they come home empty.

Lethbridge is a good example. When their purses were around $1000, there were lots of open stalls and trainers from Montana went north and won races. Today the purses are $4000, stalls are hard to get and to win a race is even harder. Their handle is not where they get the purse money; it comes from the gambling machines in Bullys Sports Centre.

Peggy's comments: The jump in the purse structure is phenomenal and it’s what Montana should be doing. Lethbridge is an example of what could be done if Montana got on the bandwagon with our state supporting racing and showing what casino betting can do. It’s also a good example of homebred horses getting the share of big purses. More times than not, Alberta bred horses have won the $100,000 Canada Cup at Lethbridge. Last year, Poutinlori (bred in Alberta), two years ago, Dashs Rhythm (bred in Alberta) took home the winner’s share. Shipped semen has a lot to do with improving bloodlines in Quarter Horses and one reason why it’s hard to win races there. The breeding industry in Alberta has taken a tremendous shot in the arm and their horses compete anywhere…i.e. Stan Webb’s homebred and trained Heza Cash Request, winning the AQHA Claiming Challenge at Los Alamitos two years ago.

Topper's Comments:
Hollywood Park has big purses with five horse fields. Why? No one wants to run for sixth place—it doesn’t pay! Prairie Meadows has half of their stalls open. Their purses are around $20,000 for each race. Why so many open stalls? If you can’t run in the money, you don’t get any of it. Better to go some place where you can get some of the purse.

Peggy's comments: In some ways, this is correct. Other reasons for not sending horses include the price of training (I was told $60 per day at both Los Alamitos, where the purses aren’t that good, and also at Bay Meadows when I inquired. Southern Cal, Santa Anita and Del Mar are even higher.) Better to be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big one?!

Topper's Comments:
Fair meets will never be able to offer big purses for every race, and if they did, someone else with faster horses would come in and get the purse.

Peggy's comments: Although Missoula seems to offer bigger purses than Billings because of their sponsorships and because they can use all of that money over a 7 day period.

Topper's Comments:
Simulcast was designed to supplement racing and that is all it can do.

Peggy's comments: It will not support all racing. If we had a simulcast outlet in each and every town and city in Montana, we still wouldn’t have enough money to make good purses. Montana doesn’t have the population to do it, in the first place. Yes, it could supplement the purses, and does, but I agree that it will never support racing. That’s why we need percentages of other gaming. Many people go in a casino and put a few dollars worth of quarters in a machine, but few will sit down and handicap a race card and make bets, so it’s that select few, betting on horses, and they cannot make the purses.

Topper's Comments:
Several years ago the MBOHR suggested that the answer to the problems of racing was to use all available funds from simulcast and Senate Bill 65 for purses and supplementing the tracks. That move killed the breeding industry in the state and it didn’t change the decline of racing at all.

Now the idea is to put all that money into one track with high purses and attract all kinds of good horses for 30 days and everything will be great.

Peggy's comments: Things are never going to "be great" are they? Things could get better if we were to get support from the State of Montana and get a proactive group together, such as Horse Racing Alberta, and promote horse racing, along with receiving percentages of gaming. The fair meets should be prepared to be on a break even expectation and realize what sort of economic impact racing has on their communities for the time they are there, either training or racing.

Topper's Comments:
In my opinion, in two years that track will be closed and racing will be finished in Montana. Sam Murfitt will be retired and Sue Austin will have the dubious distinction of being Chair to the Board that killed horse racing in Montana.

Peggy's comments: The one track concept is also dubious. Rather than "stirring the pot", the MBOHR should be actively pursuing support in the legislature and the communities where the impact will certainly be felt if racing is discontinued at their various fairs and race meets.

Topper's Comments:
Fair managers need to take care of their meets and work with each other to develop a strong circuit for racing in Montana where the sport can continue. Montana will never be Hollywood Park or Los Alamitos.

Peggy's comments: Montana doesn’t have the population to become either of those, and that’s both a blessing and a curse in some ways. It’s also about time that county commissioners, such as Peggy Beltrone, realized that horse racing is a community affair, with participation by breeders, owners, trainers and bettors from their local area and it’s worth supporting, if for no other reason than that. Some are interested in baseball, some in motorcross and many others in horse racing. It’s a community of varied interests and one is no more important than the other. The city of Great Falls spent thousands of dollars on a skate park, which returns no money at all and has been vandalized by those who use it but we see nothing about ‘losing money’ in the news. They lost thousands of dollars, trying to promote Lewis and Clark…..but few were interested. They are "happy they did it", etc. I’d like to see the same kind of support for an industry that brings many dollars to any area where they are buying locally and spending money and providing entertainment for some and a way of life for others.

Topper's Comments:
But it can be a place to start your horses, and when you get a Panther Mountain or an AB What A Runner or a Medaglia d’Oro or a Buddy Gil, you can send them to the bigger tracks and score big. And if they don’t make it big, you can bring them back to Montana and race them until they are 10- or 12-year-olds and still win.

Peggy's comments: I hope the county fairs will vigorously fight for their race meets and they will continue on. One race meet in Billings is doomed from the start, I think. As you said, Montana racing is a community affair, not the big time. It will never be that. Maybe none of us would want it to be. The early morning breakfasts in front of the race office in Shelby, when Scotty cooked …the potlucks at Missoula and the horseman’s parties...I can’t imagine all those gone, for one race meet at Billing.