Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Horse Racing in Montana Continues to Die the Slow, Painful Death – With Deepest Thanks to the Montana Board of Horse Racing

This is a bad week for supporters of live horse racing in Montana.  The Montana Board of Horse Racing, in its infinite wisdom, made key decisions that are certain to mark the de facto death of the 2013 racing season before it starts.  This will be the second straight year that racing aficionados and bettors will have to look elsewhere.   Unfortunately, the drive to California or New York where racing still lives is a bit of a long drive in a 1975 Chevy on the interstate.

It is a simple problem for the Montana Board of Horse Racing: generate revenue to regulate and protect the sport it runs.  Now, the only things running are the Board Members’ mouths.  The horses certainly are not running, nor are they likely to with the current Board’s actions.  Track operators, owners, trainers and spectators are getting the shaft, and if it is any indication when someone creates a monster, the villagers will start coming out with pitchforks and torches.

With the estimated increase of three racing days to eight, given current revenue estimates, the Board seeks to soothe the savage beast, somehow hoping to give the impression to someone that they are actually running a racing season.  Given that, the Board’s action to authorize twenty- five days of racing at their January meeting even though they admit there is not enough funding to support it seems odd.  The hard numbers speak for themselves.  California, for example, runs four major tracks (Golden Gate, Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and Del Mar, not including the fair circuit), with racing basically year-round.  This also does not include substantial harness and Quarter Horse racing.  No one claims that Montana may be compared directly to California, but what the Montana Board of Horse Racing is doing is akin to putting a Band-Aid over a gushing artery.  It is time to stop the bleeding before horse racing is fully and finally dead in Montana.  It is more than a shame - it is a tragedy of mismanagement over an industry that has over a 100-year history in the state.

The Board’s debt service cripples it, but at the same time it is not creating enough revenue to support live racing.  With response to naysayers that there is new leadership and direction on the Board, this current Board conducted fewer meetings in 2012 than 2011.  This Board has not published meeting minutes on the MBOHR website since April of 2012 - so much for openness and transparency.

What happened this week should not have been a surprise.  On Monday, an advisory panel for the Missoula County fairgrounds recommended scrapping the existing horse racing facility, and hence horse racing in Missoula.  Specifically, the panel recommends not considering horse racing in future development plans for the fairgrounds.  If the county commissioners adopt that recommendation, the racetrack will be likely torn down and the area redeveloped for other purposes.  When will another track bite the dust?  The Board should heed this rather severe wake-up call and answer to the industry.  The Board needs to consider proposals for additional revenue streams from investors and entrepreneurs now.  Without racing days, without tracks, no one wins a purse, the vendors don’t sell their hot dogs and brew, and Little Johnny doesn’t get a race day with his dad this year.  This poor outcome is the fault of the Board of Horse Racing, and not the state's horse racing industry.  Pull out your pitchforks - the monster is on the loose.

The Montana Board of Horse Racing consciously and openly refuses to pursue approaches that still have a great chance to generate as much as several hundred thousand dollars a year in supporting live racing in Montana, not to mention still servicing the existing debt.  Circle the wagons to save Montana horse racing.  Maybe the Missoula facility will not be lost after all.  If the horse racing industry in Montana does not wise up soon and realize what is really going on, it may be too late to salvage horse racing in the state.

Stories on this continued Montana debacle can be found here and here.


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