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Final Task Force meeting sparks animated debate

December 12, 2006     E-mail this page to a friend!

By Phyllis Tryon
While a legislative proposal for telephone account and internet wagering and one for legalizing fantasy sports betting through the tote system used for horse racing were supported unanimously by the members of the Montana Horse Racing Task Force, a proposal to possibly restructure the Montana Board of Horse Racing (MBOHR) met with opposition. The Task Force convened for the last official meeting at the Capitol Building in Helena on Wednesday, December 6.

Task Force members voted to move forward a proposal to restructure the MBOHR in a 5-4 vote, but Sam Murfitt, executive secretary of the MBOHR, said he would protest the vote, since Ray “Topper” Tracy voted by proxy on the matter, being absent due to health reasons.

At one point in a heated dissertation on why the Task Force should not be engaged in a review of the structure of the MBOHR, Murfitt declared they did not have an “edict” from the Governor to look at promoting horse racing through MBOHR.

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

Task Force members Sherry Meador and Ray Tracy have been working as a subcommittee on a proposal of a possible Board of Horse Racing restructure under the Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of Livestock, where it is currently placed. The idea is to allow MBOHR the opportunity to promote the racing industry as a high value agricultural product. A number of states allow for such promotion, but Murfitt has consistently stated such is not allowed under current Montana statute.

The proposal presented at this meeting also suggests a board of five members rather than the current seven. Also under the proposal, the MBOHR must meet monthly during the race season and hear appeals within 30 days of stewards’ decisions. This year, the Board has had only two or three regular meetings and as of the date of the Task Force meeting, had not heard appeals from the Miles City race meet in May.

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” has been Murfitt’s rallying cry since the Task Force began working on the proposed Board changes some months ago.

“For you to push this and make it such a big issue boggles the mind,” Murfitt declared.

MBOHR board member Bob Brastrup echoed Murfitt’s concerns about making any changes to the Board of Horse Racing. He expressed concern that promotion funds would come from purses or breeders’ bonus awards.

Brastrup said the most important issue facing horse racing at the moment was the lack of jockey insurance coverage for the 2007 season.

MBOHR board member Al Carruthers suggested that the main push of the Task Force should be to get a percentage of the state’s share of gaming revenues.

“We need to get, like all the other states, some of the machine money, with or without the Governor’s blessing,” he stated. “If you get those purses back up, the owners and trainers will be back.”
In light of that, Chair Mahlum put forth a proposal to seek legislative approval on the addition of two more gaming machines per gaming establishment, with percentages of revenue earmarked for horse racing. Task Force member John Tooke suggested that rather than add two machines, which is an expansion of gambling, perhaps Triple Play machines could be introduced.

The Task Force voted unanimously to support Mahlum’s continuing work on legislation to provide gaming machines from which revenue can be distributed to the racing industry.

Mahlum then distributed the Economic Impact Statement summary finally made available through MSU-Billings. The Task Force was very unhappy with the quality of the report, which was priced at $7,800. The EIC was supposed to have been provided by mid-October, but was not received until December 5 and appeared inadequate for the purpose for which it was intended. The Task Force moved that Mahlum request clarification or revision of the EIC.

Regarding the current lack of jockey insurance for 2007, discussion moved along the lines of whether State Fund could again cover jockeys under workmen’s compensation. Murfitt felt that was a dead end, both due to past relations between horse racing and State Fund and also due to the possible high cost of premiums. No conclusion on the insurance matter was reached.