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Montana Horse Racing Task Force Approved Minutes June 6, 2006

July 18, 2006     E-mail this page to a friend!

The Montana Horse Racing Task Force met on June 6, 2006 in the State Capitol Building, Room 152. Chairman Dale Mahlum called the meeting to order at 1:07 p.m.

Task Force members in attendance: Chairman Dale Mahlum, Missoula; Bill Schmitt, Great Falls; Ray “Topper” Tracy, Stevensville; Ron Thibert, Kalispell; John Tooke, Miles City; Sherry Meador, Helena; Ben Carlson, Billings, and Shawn Real Bird, Harden. Excused was Joe Birdrattler, Browning.

Chair Mahlum gave a brief summary of the previous meeting and also noted that a new state-wide breeders organization is being formed, which is a positive for horse racing in the state.

The minutes of the previous meeting were reviewed. John Tooke made a motion to approve the minutes. The motion passed with all in agreement.

Chair Mahlum opened the floor for public comment, stating it is extremely important for the Task Force to listen to the public. There were no comments at this time.

Ben Carlson addressed the issue of jockey insurance concerns. Carlson has spoken with the state workmen’s compensation office and will be getting statistics. Feedback and estimates on coverage will be addressed to Chair Mahlum.

Sherry Meador reported the cost of economic impact statements between $10,000 and $15,000. However, there are other options. Prairie Meadows Race Track in Iowa has economic impact information and might work with the Task Force within a budget. John Tooke noted he has a contact person at the University of Montana, and UM might be able to cover aspects of economic impact through another survey at far less expense. Topper Tracy pointed out an economic impact statement is necessary if the Task Force wishes to approach the state legislature to see if horse racing is worth pursuing legislatively. He was going to check with the Montana Development Corporation in Missoula about the possibility of grant money to generate a statement.

Chair Mahlum said he would pursue discussing the means to generate an economic impact statement with the Governor and Evan Barrett. Sherry Meador will also pursue what type of statement would be available at less expense.

John Tooke reported on a survey included in the race program at the Miles City Bucking Horse Race Meet. Out of 68 surveys collected, people responded positively to horse racing and as a whole, feel it is a benefit to our communities. Tooke would like to see surveys available at other race meets in the state.

Topper Tracy presented an overview of the industry in the state, pointing out that the industry must take action on two major issues immediately: 1. stimulate racing for the next year or two with a short-range plan; and 2. look for long-range solutions to sustain racing in the future.

Tracy noted the Montana Board of Horse Racing requested funding from the state to cover track management costs, which if approved, could help tracks in the short-term. He also suggested gambling revenue may be available from the state for a limited time to help in the short-term.

In a long-range view, Tracy suggested one or two permanent facilities may be needed in the state for training purposes and to conduct horse racing. Our county fair tracks have difficulty being open as training facilities, as it takes five months or longer to get a horse ready for racing. If we don’t have facilities, horsemen will go elsewhere. One challenge to that approach is how to finance such a facility or facilities. However, such a facility could be a financial boon to a county. Tracy suggested putting together a proposal regarding industry needs in relation to facilities and submitting it to counties in the state for feedback. Butte has indicated interest, and there may be other counties that would consider such a proposal. Regardless, the industry needs financial support for both short-term improvements and long-term fixes.

A brief discussion ensued over where such a facility/facilities may be located, the benefit to the agricultural industry, and the entertainment value. Chair Mahlum noted that horse racing is indeed part of the agricultural industry in the state. John Tooke noted that counties also need help improving their existing facilities. Tracy explained his idea is not a “one track concept” but an idea that could help support the fair meets across the state. He also noted we need to consider adding entertainment value to live horse racing.

Ron Thibert pointed out we that any new facilities would be a long-term concept, but we have infrastructure now at the county tracks, and they could use help with funding for the sport.

Shawn Real Bird said the industry needs state-wide, community, and business support, and to get that support, it needs a marketing plan. He noted that the horse racing industry lags behind other industries in terms of marketing and planning. Both Real Bird and John Tooke noted that a number of customer service details at the recent Miles City meet were lacking, which causes the track to lose money. The industry needs to attend to customer service.

Sherry Meador pointed out that tracks in Alberta and Iowa treat horse racing more like an entertainment industry, and more people attend the races. Montana can look at such models and see the types of things that have been done to revive the industry.

Meadow made a note that the track in Helena has been nominated to the Historic Registry, an effort that may help to save the track from demolition.

Chair Mahlum appointed three subcommittees to further research solutions. The first subcommittee: Equine facilities in Montana. Topper Tracy, Bill Schmitt, Ron Thibert, and any other interested people were assigned to this committee and asked to check with existing racing facilities in Montana and contact counties to see if there is interest in building an equine facility with a track, covered grandstands, and arena that could be used for all equine events in their county.

Second subcommittee: Financing the industry. John Tooke, Ben Carlson and Shawn Real Bird and any other interested people were assigned to this committee and asked to find methods of financing racing in Montana. They will research other states to see what is being done elsewhere and what ideas can be used in Montana to generate a strong financial base for the industry, and if possible, find new methods to finance support.

Third subcommittee: How to improve the entertainment value of equine events. Sherry Meador, Joe Birdrattler, and Dale Mahlum and any other interested people were assigned to this committee and asked to research ways to help make racing and other equine events an enjoyable entertainment experience for the public.

Chair Mahlum said a Marketing Plan could be developed in September/October after these subcommittees address research.

Again, the floor was opened to public comment. Bill Nooney of Missoula said that horse racing is part of Montana history, heritage, and our fairs. The state needs to help the industry get back on its feet for a short-term solution. Anita Varone, Chair of the Lewis & Clark County Commission, was present to also note the track in Helena has been nominated to the Historic Registry. She also suggested surveys regarding horse racing be sent to the general public, not just included in racing programs. Larry Jordan felt the Task Force should have a tight timeline for resolution of issues. Scott Meador, fair manager in Missoula, said the fairboard is currently looking at a strategic plan for the grounds and that infrastructure is badly in need of repair. A petition was signed by 2500 citizens in favor of horse racing. He also said fairground financials were available to be reviewed.

Sam Murfitt, executive secretary of the Montana Board of Horse Racing, gave an overview of the history and current state of horse racing in Montana. Murfitt pointed out that increases in pari-mutuel handle cannot cover an increase in purses, that racing infrastructure across the state needs repair, and that racing needs to be fun again. He pointed out the MBOHR budget barely covers its costs, and predicts that unless legislative action is taken this upcoming session, horse racing will not continue in Montana except for maybe one abbreviated meet. He also noted the Task Force must first convince the current state administration of its needs and value before it can sell the legislature.

Mark Bridges of the Department of Livestock explained the “EPP” process for the MBOHR budget. The Task Force was willing to sign a letter indicating support of the EPP to send to the Budget Committee.

There was no further public comment. Comments by the Task Force included discussion of the possibility of supplementing horse racing with gambling monies. John Tooke noted that the Task Force needs to have specific direction from the Governor’s office as to parameters in which to work.

Ben Carlson provided a number of handouts for the Task Force. The information included long-term statistics on the state of the industry, financial information from Yellowstone Downs, extensive state-wide simulcast statistics, and information on Telephone Account Wagering and Internet Gambling, among others.

John Tooke provided handouts on Fantasy Sports, which would operate through the existing simulcast network. He believes this would introduce new players to horse racing by helping them become familiar with betting terms. Legislative action would be required to legalize this method.

The Task Force at this time agreed that more public notice needs to be given regarding meetings so the public can attend. Also, the Task Force should communicate with the media via press releases, to be officially sent from the Governor’s office.

Chair Mahlum charged the subcommittees with being responsible to have as much information as possible for the next meeting.

The next meeting was set for Friday, July 14 in Great Falls at 1:00 p.m. at the fairgrounds, as live horse racing begins on Saturday, July 15. The meeting was adjourned.