Dave Astar looked out his window last Saturday to see Nice To Meet Me hanging out in the pasture, relaxing with a handful of retired racehorses. Ordinarily, Astar already would be thinking about the summer to come, making plans to prepare the 4-year-old thoroughbred for another racing season at Canterbury Park.
The horse still is sound, and Astar said he remains fast enough to win a couple of races this season at the Shakopee track. But even if everything goes perfectly, Astar projected he could earn only about $18,000. Take out the cuts that go to the trainer and jockey, and Astar would be left with $14,400 -- slightly less than it would cost to train and race the gelding during the 62-day season.
So Astar will keep Nice To Meet Me on his farm near Hastings, while he contemplates moving his racing operation to a state that has enriched its purses through racino profits. Allowing Minnesota to join those states will be discussed in the legislative session that begins Tuesday. As lawmakers consider adding slot machines to Canterbury Park and Running Aces Harness Park to fund a Vikings stadium, schools and other causes, they should not forget the core beneficiary: a state racing industry in desperate need of a lifeline.
Astar noted that he's not the only one disappointed that Nice To Meet Me will stay home. If the horse were to race, Astar would have spent $15,000 on trainers, veterinarians, grooms, farriers, transportation and state taxes and license fees. That's for just one horse at a track that typically stables 1,200 horses every summer.
Many more jobs and businesses are supported by Minnesota's farms and breeding operations, which have dwindled because of Canterbury's low purses. That will continue without an infusion of racino money, which has resuscitated the racing industry in 13 states.
"He's a good, healthy horse, but it doesn't make sense to run him here any more," Astar said. "I've been in the business for a decade in Minnesota, and I love it. But gross purses are down 40 percent since 2005, and expenses are up 25 percent.
"This will probably be my last year. If racino passes, I would change my view. Without racino, I can't see [continuing to race in Minnesota], and most other people can't see it, either."
While Canterbury's attendance remains healthy -- last season drew a record average of 6,143 fans -- wagering on its races has declined steadily since its peak in 2006. That has cut into purses, which are funded by a percentage of wagering and revenues from the track's card club.
The track's problems have been exacerbated by illegal Internet betting, which returns no money to the purse fund, and last summer's government shutdown, which cost Canterbury six days of racing and 20 days of card-club revenue.
A bill that has already been introduced in the Minnesota House would allow 4,000 slot machines to be installed at Canterbury Park and Running Aces. According to the Equine Development Coalition of Minnesota, a horse racing advocacy group, racino money could add $25.9 million to the tracks' purse funds by 2015. Thoroughbred purses would increase from $5.5 million to $22.5 million, with purses for standardbreds and quarter horses rising by a similar percentage.
That would draw more and better horses to Canterbury, making its racing more appealing to horseplayers. Another $6.9 million would go to Minnesota's breeders' fund, which would stimulate a breeding industry at its lowest point in years.
Only 142 thoroughbred foals were registered in Minnesota in 2010, a number that has fallen steadily since 344 were registered in 2005. If that population continues to diminish and Canterbury cannot attract horses from other states, it will soon be unable to fill race cards.
A wider challenge
Astar made the important point that racinos are not a cure-all for horse racing. Wagering has declined nationwide since 2006, a trend that must be reversed if the sport is to survive. The Jockey Club is pursuing ways to increase racing's popularity and visibility, draw younger fans and boost its image by improving safety and integrity.
Those are all long-term goals. If Minnesota's racing industry doesn't get immediate help, it may not last long enough to help make them happen.
"I had eight to 12 broodmares at one time," Astar said. "Now I'm down to two, and I don't know if I'll breed them [in 2012], because the projections for the future are so poor.
"Progressive change is needed. But racino would extend the life of the industry in Minnesota for several years."
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org