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Kevin Schnepf, Published December 16 2009

North Dakota Horse Park under review

Racing continuing at the North Dakota Horse Park in Fargo could be a long shot.

With the park facing a $200,000 deficit, the North Dakota Racing Commission voted Tuesday to conduct a financial review of the track that has sponsored races since 2003.

The vote comes on the heels of horse park General Manager Heather Benson stepping down – expressing fears the track will not have enough money to operate for the 2010 season.

Winston Satran, director of the North Dakota Racing Commission, said his group is withholding funding for Fargo’s park until the financial review is complete.

“The racing commission is concerned about those businesses that are owed money (by the horse park). … I think that is the first priority,” Satran said. “We’re concerned that people who provided services get paid through some sort of mechanism, and we are here to assist in accomplishing that.”

Julie Cardwell, president of the horse park’s board of directors, said in an Associated Press story that the track is about $200,000 in the red and the goal right now is to pay money owed to vendors for last season. She said the track might not open next racing season.

Satran said it’s “too soon to tell” if there will be racing next year in Fargo.

Benson, who has been the horse park’s general manager for nearly two years, claims the state Racing Commission has depleted funding so much that the Fargo track could operate for only one weekend.

“That kind of makes my job null and void,” Benson said. “They (the commission) would have to have a reason to have a general manager, which at this time, remains very questionable.”

Benson claims the Racing Commission has put the future of Fargo’s park in jeopardy based on decisions it made at a Nov. 3 meeting.

In that meeting, the commission granted funding and scheduling for North Dakota’s only other horse race track in Belcourt while delaying any such action for Fargo’s track.

“Belcourt got four times the amount it did in the previous two years,” Benson said. “That’s what depleted the funds. That was a big surprise … not only for me but for everyone in North Dakota.”

Satran said the Racing Commission gave the horse park the funding it requested for the 2009 season: $350,000 from its purse fund and $225,000 from its promotion fund.

At the Nov. 3 meeting, the horse park asked for help to eliminate its $200,000 debt. Despite a 50 percent increase in handle and a 250 percent increase in corporate sponsorships, Benson estimates the track lost $180,000 because of a drastic reduction in Internet wagering.

After delaying financial help for the Fargo track at the Nov. 3 meeting, the commission awarded $86,000 of its $244,668 promotion fund to the Belcourt track for track improvements and operating expenses. The commission also awarded $88,000 of its $131,070 purse fund to the Belcourt track.

“That leaves us with about $42,000 … only enough to fund two days of racing,” Benson said. “I can honestly give you nothing but a big question mark right now. I’m not sure how it will all come together. Let’s just say I’ve been updating my resume.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549