In 1997, former state Sen. Dick Day sponsored a bill that would allow slot machines to be installed at Canterbury Park. Back then, few people were familiar with the concept of a racino, the now-common marriage of a casino with a horse-racing track.
Day, an Owatonna Republican, argued that a racino would generate additional purse money for the Shakopee track, stimulating Minnesota's slumping racing industry, and help fund a proposed new stadium for the Twins. That began a 15-year period in which Canterbury would spend nearly $2 million to lobby for a racino -- with some of that money going to Day, who became the chief lobbyist for the cause.
Day has had a railbird's view of a legislative process that ignored public support and smothered every racino bill that came its way. He also has seen the state's racehorse industry reach the brink of collapse, with fewer than 100 thoroughbred foals expected to be born this year. Yet Day is leading the chorus that is ripping Canterbury for ending this costly and fruitless pursuit, as it chose instead to take the sure thing offered by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux tribe.
The tribe will put $75 million into Canterbury's purse fund over the next 10 years, plus another $8.5 million to pay for joint marketing. In return, Canterbury will not support racino legislation over the life of the deal. Day and his ilk consider that a "sellout." In reality, it is a sensible compromise that achieves the sole end Canterbury sought: to save horse racing in Minnesota.
Since the agreement was announced Monday, track officials have been accused of betraying taxpayers, since a racino would have pumped money into the state treasury. That's a curious assertion, since the Legislature has shown no sign it will ever pass a racino bill.
Track officials believed they finally would have a chance this year. Democrats, seen as protectors of Indian gaming, were no longer in power. The state needed money for a Vikings stadium, among other things. Even with those advantages, legislators rejected it again, a clear signal that pursuing a racino had become a fool's errand.
While Day failed to win racino approval as both a senator and a lobbyist, the racing industry deteriorated further. The foal crop has dropped sharply since 2008, diminishing the pool of future racehorses. That put Canterbury's survival in jeopardy -- and if the track died, the industry and the businesses it supports would die with it.
Canterbury Park President Randy Sampson faced a clear choice. He could take the tribe's offer and stop the bleeding now. Or he could take a risk, wasting more money and time chasing a racino that might never be approved. That's not "selling out." It's making a wise business decision that benefits Minnesota horse industry, preserves jobs, keeps taxes flowing to the state and gives racing a chance to grow.
"With so few foals, when you look two or three years down the road, we would be in serious trouble without a shot in the arm for purses," Sampson said Tuesday. "This [deal] is a positive for horse racing. It's a chance for us to make a leap forward, which is what it's always been about."
Some cynics believe the track made the deal to enrich itself. But the $75 million goes to the purse fund, not to the track -- and a racino would have made it far richer. Others object to the pact because they want to end the Indians' casino monopoly, though it is patently unfair to expect Canterbury to fight that political battle at its own expense.
Day seemed particularly incensed that Canterbury will oppose future casino/racino legislation. It's amusing to hear him imply that lawmakers could be influenced by the track's stance on gaming proposals, since they have rejected the arguments of Canterbury's lobbyists for 15 years.
As someone who has made those arguments, he ought to understand that futility better than anyone. Instead of being angry with Canterbury for making a deal to save itself and its industry, Day should direct his rage at the legislators who left the track with no other choice. And if he believes the racino quest is still viable, he should remember the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org