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Wendy Reuer, Published August 16 2012

Horse Park has ‘successful’ 2012 season, but racing’s return not a sure bet for 2013

FARGO - Horse racing officials agree this year’s four-day meet here after a two-year hiatus was a success, but a number of challenges remain for the track that has been steeped in controversy and funding trouble since the beginning.

The North Dakota Racing Commission has called an Aug. 30 meeting to discuss the final results of the meet along with the future of the North Dakota Horse Park.

“(The track) had gone through a difficult set of circumstances. As everybody knows there was a period of no racing; now I would say we are in a rebuilding period,” said Winston Satran, director of the North Dakota Racing Commission.

Satran said the successful 2012 meet over two July weekends is encouraging, but it does not ensure racing will return in 2013.

“The races were extremely successful so it sets the tone for the Racing Commission and (Horse Race North Dakota) to do everything they can to have horse racing again in 2013,” he said.

The park closed in April 2010 after racking up about $150,000 in debt since opening in 2005, not including the payback of more than $2 million in debt tied to the construction of the track at 5180 19th Ave. N.

In 2009, the Racing Commission granted $587,000 to Horse Race North Dakota, the nonprofit that operates the track, but expenditures totaled about $823,000.

This year, state racing officials approved four days of racing and put up $89,000 for purse money and $18,000 for operating expenses. Out-of-state wagering companies also donated more than $75,000.

Satran said the races in Fargo cost about $25,000 per day in 2012.

After this year’s meet, Horse Race North Dakota President Wes Heinert estimates the horse park is about $120,000 in the black.

Heinert said wagering could bring in an average of $20,000 per day; $57,000 was wagered the last day of racing. More than 7,000 attended over the four days.

In previous years, HRND operated its own concession operation. This year it contracted with a Fargo bar for concessions, receiving a 25 percent cut of profits, which was about $12,000.

Debt to overcome

Although the Fargo track came out of the meet in the black, it remains in debt.

The Racing Commission can help fund racing in the state through money that comes from taxes on off-track betting.

About $112 million was wagered through simulcast companies licensed in North Dakota last year, generating about $380,000 in tax income for the commission.

Commission dollars can be used for purses, encouraging horse breeding in the state and promotion, which covers racing expenses. The commission cannot help pay track debts.

In 2003, the city of Fargo extended sewer, water and other infrastructure to help build the horse park. North Dakota Horse Park Foundation, the nonprofit that owns the track, owes

$1.8 million for special assessments levied on the property, said Kent Costin, the city’s finance director. It owes another $250,000 to the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp.

The special assessments on these properties were deferred through 2012 under a contract extension approved by the City Commission, Costin said. The first annual bill, due in 2013, will be $135,508.

However, Costin said if more development moves into the area, which is a tax increment financing district, those payments could be shared.

Heinert added that the foundation has not yet received a bill from the city or EDC.

Race organizers were also charged $14,000 by North Dakota State University to use the barns at the property. It’s an amount Heinert said he hopes to negotiate in the future.

He said the park may also need to consider hiring a full-time manager again. Volunteers and HRND board members donated their time to ensure the track was up and running for the 2012 meet.

Park Manager Heather Benson was let go after the debt-laden 2009 season. Heinert said a Racing Commission audit found no wrong-doing by Benson, but the reins would be tight if a manager is hired.

“Whoever we hire, we just wouldn’t give carte blanche. We couldn’t dig out of another fiasco,” he said.

Fargo finding a place

Both Heinert and Satran said early planning for next year will be key to growth if races happen in 2013.

“I think we proved to everybody that people are very interested in racing. Obviously, we’d have to look at different dates next year,” Heinert said.

This year’s meet followed the meet at Chippewa Downs in Belcourt, N.D., the state’s only other horse track. Heinert said the dates were set in hopes of attracting horses already running at Belcourt.

Fargo’s size and location could fulfill a need as a secondary track for the far-larger operation in the Twin Cities. In the past, many horses came to Fargo from Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., which has races all summer long.

Jeff Maday, a longtime handicapper and media relations director at Canterbury, said with only four days of racing, it probably didn’t pay for horsemen to ship horses in for the meet, as most racehorses only run once every two weeks.

He said the Fargo track can fill a need for horses that are less competitive at larger tracks but still show talent – if the track has more race days or schedules its meet before or after larger track meets end.

“The problem is they can’t train all year-round just to run in Fargo,” said Bob Johnson, a South Dakota-based trainer.

Johnson, who spends the summer quarter horse season at Canterbury and Prairie Meadows in Iowa, said the Fargo track could be an appealing spot for horses that couldn’t cut it at the larger tracks, especially since small tracks are becoming rarer.

“Those horses that aren’t competitive at Prairie Meadows or Canterbury, they can still be competitive other places. They need to have a place to go, and Fargo is (the place to go),” Johnson said.

Johnson said he’d like to see both more race dates and larger purses added to stakes races, which often promote state-bred horses.

Satran said the commission will begin preliminary planning at its meeting later this month. The commission will then meet again, likely in November, to hear final year-end reports from both HRND and Chippewa Downs.

“What HRND and the racing commission will have to do this year is begin to organize early this fall for the races next year. Then we will also have to work hard at increasing the financing to cover the cost of races,” Satran said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530