BY JIM WELLS
Even on a bright, balmy Monday afternoon, it was still possible to agree that every silver lining has its cloud.
Take Minnesota’s horse industry and the refusal of state legislators to represent the wishes of the people who elected them. In poll after poll, seventy to eighty percent of Minnesotans support a Racino at Canterbury Park, and time after time state legislators refuse to give it to them.
Instead they couch their objections with thread-worn clichés that are nothing more than camouflage for the true reason behind their obduracy _ campaign donations (all documented) _ from Minnesota casinos.
Getting campaign cash has become more important than the voters in American politics.
In the meantime, an untold number of small businesses directly connected to horse racing struggle or never get off the ground in Minnesota, untold taxes are never collected and the state’s horse industry continues to stagnate.
Horse racing puts veterinarians, breeders, stable help, farriers, farmers, truckers, grain salesmen, pari-mutuel clerks, concessionaries, hot-walkers, gallop boys and girls, jockeys and trainers to work.
A racetrack is the hub to the entire horse industry but it all begins with the breeding farms and operations and they are suffering.
“We can’t afford to breed in this state any longer,” said breeder Dave Dayon during Saturday’s Minnesota Festival of Racing. “A lot of breeders I know just can’t invest any longer.”
This is an industry with a domino effect. Better purses mean better horses, bigger crowds and more money for horse owners, breeders, riders and trainers. Better purses mean more investment, more jobs, more taxes. Simply put, Minnesota is not keeping pace with other states where Racinos are part of the mix.
The argument of no interest in racing is a crock.
“No interest?” said Jeff Hilger, who operates Bleu Valley Farm near Stillwater, one of Minnesota’s foremost breeding operations.
“Yesterday, there were more than 11,000 people here to watch Minnesota-bred horses (in the Minnesota Festival of Racing.) Think what the crowds would be like with really good horses.”
Another 9,500 showed up on Monday.
Hilger and his wife, Deb, rely upon purses at Canterbury to sustain their business. Good purses provide incentive and result in more investment by horse owners and breeders, etc. etc. etc.
Here is the future of Minnesota breeding in microcosm: In the sixth race on Monday’s card, Satin Edition, a five-year-old mare owned by the Hilgers, started and won for the second time since last Thursday night. Two races in four days?
“Somebody asked me why I would run that mare for $3,500 ( in winnings),” Hilger said. “I told him that I was running for $7,000. It just took two races.”
In any event, the race was the last for the daughter of Holy Bull. Her future, like that of racing in Minnesota, is uncertain.
“I’ll hold her until February,” Hilger said, “to see if we get a Racino.”
If Canterbury gets a Racino, Hilger can see a reason to invest more and will breed Satin Edition. “Otherwise I’ll find someone good who will use her as a hunter/jumper,” he said.
That is the current state of racing in Minnesota. The purses are such that many horsemen can’t justify additional investment.
“If you win a race, you can pay some bills,” said Paul Knapper, a Lonsdale horseman. “If you finish second, you can’t. If we had a Racino, you could finish second and still pay the bills.”
Knapper and his trainer, Joe Merrick, who will return to Oklahoma on Tuesday, have discussed the subject ad infinitum this summer, the need for Canterbury to get some help.
It is not only breeders and trainers who see the need.
Jockey Ry Eikleberry rode his final races of the meet on the Labor Day card. In the past he has always returned to his home in Phoenix and raced at Turf Paradise. Not this time.
He’ll head to Zia Park and then El Paso (Sunland Park). “I’ve always gone back to Phoenix because that was home,” Eikleberry said. “But I need to go where the purses are. “Turf Paradise and Canterbury both need Racinos.”