Canterbury Park, Mystic Lake agreement offers new beginning for horse industry

By Jeff Hilger, Guest Columnist

When someone doesn’t tell the full story, you need to call them out. Even when it is your local newspaper.

ECM Newspapers missed the boat with its early August editorial attacking the recent purse enhancement agreement between Canterbury Park and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. It is important that people understand the facts behind this agreement, which most of the leaders of Minnesota’s horse groups strongly support.

The agreement does three things. Most importantly, it provides $75 million in purse increases over the next 10 years. It will more than double purses at Canterbury Park, bringing this track to top 25 status in the country. Second, it creates a marketing partnership between the two groups, a partnership that is no different than any other sponsorships that other horse tracks have with groups like Pepsi or AT&T.

Finally, Canterbury Park will no longer support a Racino bill. After 15 years and millions of dollars spent to pass Racino at the Minnesota Legislature, is anyone surprised that Canterbury Park is ready to walk away from this endless and expensive battle? Is anyone surprised that the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community wants Canterbury Park to walk away?

The idea of using gambling revenues to increase horse purses is not new. Many states supplement purses with slot machines or card rooms like the card club at Running Aces. The difference with this agreement is that it involves revenue from existing casinos, which means no new law or regulation was needed. The Minnesota Racing Commission reviewed the agreement and determined that it would greatly improve Minnesota’s horse industry without affecting the integrity of Minnesota horse racing.

ECM’s main concern is that Running Aces was left behind. But Running Aces and Canterbury Park have never been close allies in the Racino debate, primarily because Canterbury Park has been focused on improving the horse industry while Running Aces has been focused on improving its bottom line. For several years, Running Aces refused to support Racino bills favored by Minnesota’s horse industry because the track’s private owners would not get enough of the take from the slot machines.

I have personally been involved in conversations with Running Aces about Racino legislation. From the beginning, they have been honest with me — they are more interested in adding new casino games to Running Aces than improving harness racing. The problem is not leaving Running Aces behind, because they have always been running a different race.

In contrast, Canterbury Park has focused on improving the horse industry and jumped at the chance to more than double racing purses. Under the agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, not a dime of casino revenue goes into the pockets of Canterbury Park’s shareholders. All proceeds from this agreement will go to purses or improved marketing. Frankly, I am not sure that Running Aces would accept this deal if it was offered to them today.

Running Aces has a decision to make. If their goal is Racino revenue for the bottom line of track owners, they should keep plowing ahead. After all, maybe 15 years has not been long enough to wait for Racinos.

But if our most important goal is to improve Minnesota’s horse industry, Running Aces needs a different approach. One that puts racing purses and investment in breeding first.

Jeff Hilger is the president of the Equine Development Coalition of Minnesota.