Blount: Art of talking gives hope to future of Canterbury

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 1, 2012 - 7:47 AM

The track's president met with Mystic Lake leaders, found a way to boost purses.

Jeff Hilger had grown tired of fighting. For years, the racehorse breeder from Stillwater had urged the Legislature to allow slot machines at Canterbury Park to help fortify purses. But he and his allies could not overcome opposition from Native American casino interests and politicians, leaving their industry hanging by a thread.

Their push for a racino bill was dying again this spring, until Gov. Mark Dayton proposed a novel idea. "He said the best thing to do would be to sit down and negotiate,'' Hilger said Monday. "For 14 years, we'd fought the Native Americans. We had never sat down and talked with them. And I learned something: Talking is better than fighting.''

Hilger's discussion with the governor led to a meeting between Canterbury President Randy Sampson and representatives of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux tribe that operates Mystic Lake Casino. That led to legislation that could provide a 40 percent boost to Canterbury's purses. While it won't be as lucrative as a racino, it would provide a lifeline to the state's distressed breeding industry -- and better yet, it was passed by the Senate on Saturday and by the House on Monday.

Only 131 thoroughbred foals were born in Minnesota last year, an all-time low. Fewer will be produced this year. That trend cannot be reversed without higher purses, making it essential to find a palatable solution before the last loyal horsemen abandon ship.

The purse-enhancement legislation stands out as a sensible, bipartisan compromise, developed through concern for the horse industry and respectful discussions on how to help it in a way that benefits many. It may not be as glamorous as a Vikings stadium bill. But Dayton's signature would send a hopeful message -- not just to the horsemen but to a public soured on the politics of division and stagnation.

"This isn't the answer to all our problems, but it is a step forward,'' Hilger said. "If we hadn't gotten something, [the industry] would have died this year.

"The governor, the leadership of both parties and the Native Americans all said they didn't want to see the horse industry die. They recognized our problems and the need to do something amicable to everyone. This gives us a fighting chance to survive.''

Hilger and his wife, Deb, have bred several Canterbury champions at their Bleu Valley Farm. They used to have 14 or 15 Minnesota-bred foals per year. This year, they had one.

The track's dwindling purses have made it difficult just to break even during its summer racing season, even with a winning horse. That has caused many breeders to cut back or get out of the business. Because Canterbury relies heavily on state-bred horses to fill its races, it faces the prospect of having too few horses in the coming years to run a viable racing season.

Hilger took up the racino cause again this year, believing the stadium funding issue enhanced its chances of passage. When it hit the wall again, he sought meetings with Dayton and with legislative leaders.

The Minnesota Racing Commission publicly stated its concern for the first time as it released its annual report in February. The alarmingly low foal numbers were getting worse, and Hilger said that got lawmakers' attention. The idea of talking with the tribes -- also advocated by House Speaker Kurt Zellers -- came as a revelation.

The deal they struck will allow tribal casinos to take simulcast wagers on horse racing. It also allows the card clubs at Canterbury and Running Aces Harness Park to add tables, raise wagering limits on poker and host larger and more frequent poker tournaments. All those things will generate additional purse funds, creating more incentive to breed racehorses in Minnesota.

Sampson estimated Canterbury's purses could increase from the current $6 million per season to $8.5 million if the governor signs the bill. Racino could have added much more, but horse industry representatives wisely recognized that getting something through cooperation was far superior to getting nothing by themselves.

The tribes met them on the high road. So did many legislators. The ultimate result, they hope, will be more foals bouncing around Minnesota pastures in the coming years. For now, they are satisfied just to have optimism again -- thanks to the willingness to talk rather than fight.

"This happened because all the parties spoke to each other, and they all wanted to save something,'' said Hilger, who already is planning more state-bred foals. "That's a good start.''

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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