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Minnesota Horse Racing Quality of Life Foundation: A summarized history

The Minnesota Horse Racing Quality of Life Foundation was established in 1990 to provide services that would improve the quality of life for licensed backside personnel during the live racing season. These services included the chaplaincy program, organized athletic games, English as a second language classes and treatment for those individuals dealing with substance abuse issues.

The Foundation was dissolved this year with remaining funds transferred to the Minnesota Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association which organizes various benevolence programs on the backstretch and Abijah’s which is the bridge between the racing industry and community wellness.

The history of the Quality of Life Foundation begins with a story. More than 30 years ago, Jim Ryan, a property developer on the East Coast, attended a horse auction at which time he purchased a very high-priced horse.  After finalizing the purchase he returned to his wife and she was crying. When he asked what was wrong, she answered him saying, “Did you see the horse’s groom?” She explained that he smelled of alcohol and showed all of the signs of somebody “hung over”. The husband confessed that he hadn’t noticed his condition.  But as a result of that experience, Jim Ryan and his wife established a nationwide foundation that would address alcohol and drug issues of the workers on the backside of various racetracks across this nation. A grant was available to any track in the US that would match a $30,000 contribution.

Canterbury Park, known as Canterbury Downs until 1994, was the first racetrack in the nation to receive the grant. Under the leadership of Ralph Strangis, the Chair of the Minnesota Racing Commission at the time and the Executive Director Dick Krueger, the MRC, in conjunction with the management of Canterbury Downs, worked to obtain the grant. It was the Racing Commission and its staff that were instrumental in getting the Minnesota Horse Racing Quality of Life Foundation, originally known as the Brooks Field Quality of Life Foundation, started in 1990. It was under the Commission’s leadership that bylaws were established and the Foundation applied for and received 501c3 status. Board members were selected from the various supporters of the Foundation, which included the Racing Commission, Canterbury Downs, the Minnesota HBPA, AA and the Shakopee community at large.

Chairman Doug Fiola and board members Otto Johnson and Dick Krueger have been with the Foundation since its inception. There have been various board members over the Foundation’s 30 plus years, but in addition to Fiola, Krueger and Johnson, the board members at the time that the Foundation was dissolved were Sean Corrigan, Mike Cronin, Kermit Mahlum, Shakopee Chief of Police Jeff Tate, Pam Webber and Pastor Ed Underwood.

Alcohol and drug abuse have long been a problem in racing and in 2005 the Foundation contracted with Five Stars Recovery Center to enhance its substance abuse program. In 2006 the Foundation determined that, in line with its goal to address the substance abuse issue, it would focus solely on alcohol and drug abuse. During the live race meet Five Star Recovery, now known as NorthStar Regional, provided drug and alcohol abuse services, offering various treatment options. Backside services were available as well as on request.  Canterbury Park assumed the other quality of life programs, including the Chaplaincy program.  Over its tenure the Foundation received funding from the Minnesota Racing Commission, Canterbury Park, and other generous donors.

The key to the program’s success was always the total buy in of all the entities involved and the dedication of people like Doug Fiola.