With no racino legislation forthcoming, the track traded one dream for another.
Public records show that Minnesota's horse industry has been suffering through a tough decade. Once valued at nearly $1 billion, the industry has watched owners and breeders leave Minnesota for other states that use slot machines to increase racing purses.
As an owner and breeder, I have watched as friends and rivals have gone to states like Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Our horse industry isn't dying -- it's simply packing up and heading for greener pastures.
This year, like many other years, began as a hopeful one for racino legislation in Minnesota. Once again, the representatives of the state's horse industry visited with legislators and engaged a strong, grass-roots network in support of racinos.
And once again, as night follows day, state leaders decided that Minnesota's gaming structure is working pretty well, and racinos weren't approved.
For Canterbury Park, a trusted Minnesota company that has spent millions of dollars in support of racinos, this was a frustrating result given that the need for new state revenue seemed so obvious. For breeders like me, the failure of the racino bill was seen as the last straw. Game, set and match.
However, another solution was already in the works. At the suggestion of Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, Canterbury Park reached out in early May to the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community to see if the parties could work together to meet the needs of the horse industry.
The answer was quick and certain. The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community was ready to use some of its gaming revenues to enhance thoroughbred and quarter horse purses. This plan would more than double purses, and would help Canterbury Park compete fairly with tracks such as Prairie Meadows in Iowa and Arlington Park in Illinois.
But the offer came with an obvious request: Canterbury Park would need to abandon its goal of adding more casino games at the track. The racino model would be used, but the gaming revenues would come from the Mystic Lake and Little Six Casinos, rather than new games at the racetrack.
Once again, the answer was quick and certain. Canterbury Park immediately agreed to give up the potential for new casino-driven revenues in exchange for a 10-year agreement that will save Minnesota's breeding industry.
By making this agreement, Canterbury's owners delivered on the same promise they made when they rescued the track from bankruptcy in 1994 -- to support Minnesota horse racing. This is a clear win-win: The horse industry gets its badly needed shot in the arm, while Canterbury will provide top-notch racing to its many fans.
Some critics have suggested that Canterbury Park has abandoned its racino partner, Running Aces. That argument is curious, since Running Aces did not agree until just a few months ago to support a pro-purses version of the racino bill that Canterbury and most Minnesota horse groups have supported for years.
Running Aces has a choice to make. If its dream is to own Minnesota's 19th casino, there is a long and uphill battle ahead. On the other hand, if Running Aces wants to increase racing purses, Canterbury Park's agreement shows that creative thinking and a willingness to push aside past disputes can lead to a solution. And Minnesota's horse industry is ready to help Running Aces find its own partner.
Running Aces will have to decide if it is more important to own a casino or to improve the horse industry. When given that choice, Canterbury Park wasted no time making its decision. Minnesota's horse industry will see the benefits of that decision for years to come.
Jeff Hilger is president of the Equine Development Coalition of Minnesota.
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