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Western Montana Fair: County backs racing decision

February 3, 2007     E-mail this page to a friend!

Officials may ask for help to offset loss
By MEA ANDREWS of the Missoulian

Feb. 2, 2007, Page A1 of the Missoulian

All three Missoula County commissioners said Thursday they support suspending horse racing this year, and that they’ll consider helping the Fair get through what might be a season of lower attendance and profits.

The Missoula County Fair Commission voted 5-0 Wednesday, with two members absent, to suspend horse racing because of inadequate insurance for jockeys.

Fair officials will reconsider the decision for 2008, said Buck Smith, chairman of the Fair's governing board.

Missoula County s three elected commissioners could overturn the volunteer board's decision, but they don't sound inclined to do so.

“I think the Fair board did the right thing, the responsible thing,” said Commissioner Bill Carey. “We did give folks a year to see if they could work it out. Apparently insurance is just an unsolvable problem.”

“It was too much risk for the county to take on,” said Commissioner Jean Curtiss. “It doesn’t matter how much money we put toward it. If the insurance company sees horse racing as too much risk ... it is also too much risk for the county meaning the taxpayers to take on.”

“I don't want to take racing from the people,” said Commissioner Barbara Evans. “But we can’t take a risk with the county treasury.”

Smith and Fair manager Scot Meader said they plan to ask the county for financial help getting through the season. One possibility: a one-time cash infusion so that Fairgoers can attend the Fair for free. Adult tickets last year were $6 at the gate, and overall gate receipts brought in about $200,000 before expenses, according to Fair officials.

Some Fair visitors come only for horse racing, so attendance would likely fall this summer, Smith said. But free or low-cost admission might draw others, who in turn would ride the carnival rides, buy food from the nonprofit booths and drink beer at the beer garden.

The Fairgrounds gets a percentage of those sales, so encouraging attendance is important for everyone, Smith said.

“Right now, we are compiling accurate numbers,” he said. “If we re going to take something away, maybe we can give something back.”

“It isn’t a done deal,” he added. “We are still in the negotiating stages.”

Fair officials have not yet asked for help, but the commissioners will entertain their request, said all three commissioners.

“We will have to look at the Fair budget and projections to see if it is feasible,” Curtiss said. “We are interested in pursuing the idea, to get more folks to the Fair.”

Wednesday’s decision was a “very, very difficult, emotional decision,” Smith said. “There is no right decision. There is only a best decision.”

“They did the only thing they could,” said Ann Mary Dussault, chief administrative officer for the county. “They have my respect for making an emotional and tough call.”

Reprinted with permission from the Missoulian.
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