Racing board moves to heal riftsBISMARCK — The North Dakota Racing Commission signaled a new era of cooperation and new urgency for its support of horse racing in the state during its meeting Friday.
By: Janell Cole, N.D. Capitol Bureau
BISMARCK — The North Dakota Racing Commission signaled a new era of cooperation and new urgency for its support of horse racing in the state during its meeting Friday.
It was the first meeting with former Fargo attorney H. Patrick Weir, now of Medora, at the helm as chairman.
Commissioners reversed themselves in a legal fight it had been waging for more than a year against horse owners Randy Schwartz and Melissa Peach, whose horse they had disqualified from commission Breeders’ Fund awards. Friday’s vote has them settling the case in the horse owners’ favor.
Commissioners also voted Friday to undo a February decision giving the North Dakota Horse Park in Fargo $102,500 from the Breeders’ Fund to supplement purses at this year’s racing season, saying they want to comply with a new law barring such action.
And they expressed faith in the new direction and management at the Fargo track by granting an additional $120,000 from the commission’s promotion fund for the racing season that begins Aug. 1.
The first two actions should go a long way in healing a rift with some legislators who have become so dissatisfied with the commission that they’ve drafted a bill to abolish the office.
“It’s kind of a new day for North Dakota racing,” Weir said.
The dispute with Schwartz and Peach involved the horse Major Splash Bac Jet, which the commission had earlier contended was not due funds from Breeders Fund as a North Dakota bred horse. In January, an administrative law judge had sided with Schwartz and Peach and said the commission was wrong. But instead of adopting the judge’s recommended order, the commission rejected the judge’s decision; Peach and Schwartz responded with a lawsuit against the commission.
On Friday, commissioners met in executive session with their attorney at the start of their meeting. When they reconvened in a public meeting, they voted unanimously to adopt the administrative law judge’s decision.
“I think they did the right thing,” said Peach and Schwartz’s attorney, Beth Baumstark.
Commissioners decided they had made a mistake when they voted earlier this year to draw $125,000 out of their Breeders’ fund to augment purses for North Dakota-bred horses at the horse tracks in Fargo and Belcourt. The $22,500 they awarded to Belcourt has already been spent; the Chippewa Downs’ season was in June.
“We have to agree with the Legislature. They’re in charge,” Commissioner Tom Secrest of Hettinger said.
“You got that right,” said Commissioner DeAnn Pladson. She, Secrest and Weir had contended until Friday that they had the right to put Breed Fund money into purses. But Weir said it became clear that isn’t what legislators meant when they passed a bill in 2007.
“Rest assured, we are not fighting with the Legislature,” Weir said.
Though the vote Friday halts the spending of $102,500 from the Breeders’ fund for Fargo purses, Fargo’s track is not out the funds. The commission voted to replace the $102,500 from its purse fund.
Commissioners were impressed with a report from North Dakota Horse Park general manager Heather Benson, who took the job in March, and voted to give the track an additional $120,000 for this year’s season. She outlined the park’s aggressive fundraising plans, including a campaign to get sponsorships to help pay for the races, much like baseball teams and rodeos rely heavily on sponsorships.
She also told them North Dakota has a new opportunity to draw major off-track betting business from Oregon, which has the most business in that industry. She said bettors will be looking for a change because of new regulations in Oregon.
She had been planning to woo Oregon bettors, anyway, but now, “instead of (us) tapping on the door, someone kicked it down for us,” she said.
The commission only has about a year or two of funds left to support live racing in the state and commissioners said Benson’s ideas
“I think Heather Benson is going to help us make racing successful,” Secrest said Friday. “It’s our last best hope if we’re going to be successful in North Dakota. We’re betting on the right horse, OK?”
Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.