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Task Force agrees Montana horse racing needs cash infusion

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

By Phyllis Tryon
July 17 - Without an infusion of money, live horse racing in the state of Montana will not exist in its present form within two years. So was the consensus of the Montana Horse Racing Task Force at the Task Force meeting in Great Falls on Friday, July 14.

Sam Murfitt, executive secretary of MBOHR, has proposed a short-term infusion of cash of approximately $700,000 to be spent over two years, which he included in MBOHR’s annual EPP (executive planning process for the budget) to help pay regulatory costs for race tracks in Montana.

Murfitt provided graphs of the horse racing picture in the state over the past number of years, including number of horses entering races, number of race days and tracks, licenses issued, and pari-mutuel handle, all of which have experienced substantial decline.
“I wish I could turn the graphs upside down,” he commented, “but I can’t change the numbers.”

“We need a short term fix for the next two years,” he went on to explain, “or at least until any Legislative changes (to assist horse racing) could go into effect.”

The Task Force was in 100 percent agreement, and said they would support MBOHR’s EPP with a letter to the Governor’s office.
“It’s truly a Band-aid,” Murfitt noted.

If approved, the immediate fix would help defray costs of running a race meet for county entities and privatized race groups such as the Yellowstone Horse Racing Alliance by providing for services and activities required by statute and rule, including regulatory officials.
One question posed by Task Force member Ray “Topper” Tracy as well as others present at the meeting was whether tracks in Montana want to continue to offer horse racing.

“We have to find out how many tracks want to run,” Tracy pointed out.

Local sportswriter for the Great Falls Tribune, Curt Backa, was present at the meeting and posed a question for Bill Ogg, manager of Montana ExpoPark in Great Falls.

“What would $15,000 a day do for horse racing in Great Falls?” he asked. Ogg said it would allow the Great Falls’ track to continue with horse racing for the next two years, but also stressed there needs to be a long-term commitment to improve the condition of the sport.

The Task Force also agreed that an economic impact statement (EIS) is needed immediately to garner any possible legislative support to find a way to help horse racing financially long-term.
American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Racing Field Representative for the region, John Ward, was present at the meeting and said he would check into the possibility of AQHA assisting with the cost of an EIS. Task Force board member Sherry Meador has been researching such costs and reported a fee of $7800 to obtain such a report, which is lower than the approximately $15-$10,000 figure she had researched by the previous meeting.

Regarding a long-term fix for the horse racing industry, ideas abounded from both Task Members and others present, such as including Native American reservations in state-wide race dates, adding family entertainment at the races and offering better promotion of the sport, improving facilities, and resolving the jockey insurance issue for race tracks.

However, all present confirmed that in the long-term, the industry of horse racing needs more money to survive.

Murfitt estimated that $2 - $2.5 million annually would change the face of racing in Montana, a small figure in the overall state economy.

“So little could mean so much to horsemen,” he said.

A number of ideas were broached regarding viable ways for racing to bring in more dollars. One would be to approach the legislature for a small percentage of the State general fund or gaming machine revenue. Board member John Tooke cautioned against alienating the gaming industry, which could be viewed as a future partner to the horse racing industry.

Tooke has been working to formulate and legalize a “Fantasy Sports League” that would operate through the current tote system, thereby also developing players for the horse racing pari-mutuel industry.

“This industry has lost an entire generation,” he explained about what has happened to horse racing since the gaming industry became legalized in Montana. “To make horse racing work long-term, we have to develop an interested player base to make it succeed,” he said. “I have a problem with the ‘methadone treatment’ of horse racing – propping it up with other forms of gambling. We need our own player base.”

Other viable ideas projected were to take legislative action on Advanced Deposit Wagering, a TVG network, internet gambling, and telephone account wagering.

The Task Force reconvenes in Missoula on August 7 at 1:00 p.m., location to be announced. The public is encouraged to attend.
Live horse racing begins in Missoula at the Western Montana Fair on August 8. A horsemen’s barbeque will be held the evening of August 7.