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Montana Horse Racing Task Force tackles tough industry solutions

October 26, 2006     E-mail this page to a friend!

By Phyllis Tryon
While Sam Murfitt, executive secretary of the Montana Board of Horse Racing, chastised the Governor’s Task Force on Horse Racing for suggesting that a reorganization of the administrative portion of horse racing in the state may be worth considering, the Task Force moved forward in a meeting on October 18 in Helena with ideas for legislation, funding and ways to improve the horse racing industry in Montana.

The Task Force was organized and commissioned by the Governor last spring and charged with the mission to revitalize Montana’s horse racing industry including but not limited to promotional, legal, regulatory and financial measures.

When Sherry Meador, Task Force board member, put forth an example at the October meeting of how the administrative portion of the industry at state level may be reorganized to allow for more industry representation on its board and promotional efforts, possibly by placing MBOHR beneath the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture, Murfitt took offense.

The MBOHR currently falls under the banner of the Department of Livestock.

“It comes as a surprise that the Board (of Horse Racing) and contract people are so ineffectual,” Murfitt stated. “I have had no complaints about the current board makeup or that the MBOHR is the root of all problems with horse racing. I don’t believe that,” he added.

At one point in the meeting Murfitt commented, “The scope you (the Task Force) were charged with did not include a critique of the Board of Horse Racing.”

Murfitt was visibly upset with Meador’s report on research regarding horse racing promotion in other states and which indicated that some states provided for promotional aspects of the industry. He suggested her research was based only on Alberta’s highly successful reorganization of the structure of horse racing a few years ago.

Meador’s working document, which was the first presentation to the Task Force for their input, suggests four members of the MBOHR should come from the horse racing industry while three additional members would serve as an adjudication panel staffed by the Department of Justice, thus providing for unbiased hearings in dispute cases coming before the board. Currently according to the Board of Horse Racing rules, only two members of the MBOHR can be industry representatives. Five other members may not be in the horse racing industry.

Meador said that according to her research of State boards in Montana, MBOHR is the only board where the minority of members are representative of the industry. She suggested MBOHR be patterned after the example of other State boards.

She also suggested the board have two Ex Officio members, which would be non-voting members of the board and be representative of the DOA and the Gaming Commission.

Under her first draft of a plan, the powers and duties of the board would include hiring and supervising racing officials such as stewards, racing secretaries, starters, track veterinarians, clerks of scales, identifiers, paddock judges, and timers. Murfitt had proposed the same in his budget proposal to the state this fall, but extra money included in his proposed budget to cover the costs of such was denied.

“It’s a big mistake to head down this road,” Murfitt said of Meador’s overall plan. “Myself and the MBOHR will lobby hard against this. You created it in a vacuum.”

Meador noted during the discussion that the proposed idea was simply that: an idea to discuss among the Task Force to see if it has any merit. She also noted that public comments have been received at virtually every Task Force meeting that the industry needs to be reviewed from the top down, starting with the administration at the State level.

“If there’s a chance we can improve the Board of Horse Racing, let’s look at it,” she said. “There’s no harm in looking at it.”

Chair Dale Mahlum responded to Murfitt by explaining that in six meetings of the Task Force, Mahlum has appointed subcommittees to work on ideas. “We never discussed what your board is doing or not doing,” he said to Murfitt. “We discussed what can we do for Montana – what can we do that’s different.”

In other business, Task Force board member Bill Schmitt of Great Falls reported that Dick Forster, president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), said the HBPA would commit $2,500 to the Task Force efforts to produce an Economic Impact Statement. In light of the past donation of $5,000 by the American Quarter Horse Association, Larry Jordan, a Paint horse owner in the state, contacted the American Paint Horse Association and applied for $1,500 for the EIC. He reported the APHA would let him know in about a week if the application is successful.

Ben Carlson reported on his subcommittee researching possible legislation to help horse racing. Handouts included a copy of Senate Bill 360, which was developed by Sam Murfitt, MBOHR legal counsel Carol Grell, Tom Tucker of IMS Racing, and Gene Huntington of the State Gambling Control Division during the 2005 Montana legislative session and dealt with regulating Advance Deposit Wagering in the State. He called passing such legislation a “Got to go situation” and noted the industry has nothing to lose if ADW is legalized in Montana.

Task Force members agreed such legislation needs to be supported and pursued. At the September meeting of the Task Force, it was noted that all other surrounding states have legalized ADW.
Recently Federal legislation was passed prohibiting internet gambling with the exception of horse racing.

Horseman Al Carruthers broached the subject of a possible liason between horse racing interests in Montana and the new Las Vegas style casino on the Blackfoot Reservation. He noted that tribal interests in horse racing in Montana is high and that expanded gambling revenues are not available elsewhere.

Both Task Force members and others present at the meeting felt there may be a unique opportunity in this regard.

Task Force member John Tooke sees another financial opportunity for horse racing if legislation were passed permitting Fantasy Sports betting through the existing Tote system used by horse racing and giving horse racing a percentage of the revenues. He noted that Fantasy Sports betting is not unlawful according to the Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (HR 4954) just signed into law by President Bush.

“Although they didn’t give it the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’,” Tooke said, “Congress has expressly allowed Fantasy Sports.”

He requested and received support of the Task Force to pursue legislation. He also noted that such legislation would not be expanding gambling but combining two activities into one.
Chair Mahlum reported that an EIC should be completed by the end of October. The board agreed any Task Force contributions left over after payment of the EIC could be used toward a part-time lobbyist for proposed legislative efforts.

The Task Force will meet again on November 16 in Helena at 10:00 a.m.