Horse Racing On Tap Again for Fair

By Beacon Staff

Local horse racing organizers recently met with the Flathead County Commission to discuss this year’s schedule and gauge county support for the races, laying initial groundwork for better cooperation during the fair.

Janis Schoepf and Debbie Cunnington, who are largely responsible for horse racing’s return to the Northwest Montana Fair after a five-year hiatus, told the commission that they wanted to ensure a better working relationship with the county.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they want money from the county, Schoepf said, but they would like to work out issues such as machinery use so things can run more smoothly.

For example, Schoepf told the commissioners that the horse race organizers were not allowed to use the county’s water truck to spray the track, despite it being used later for the rodeo.

A local businessman provided a different water truck, she said, but she felt it made little sense to have to ask for something like that.

But money will play a big part in this year’s races. The organizers said the impetus behind last year’s races was largely about proving they could successfully bring horse racing back.

“We will only move forward if we’re confident the money will be covered,” Schoepf said in an interview after the meeting.

Schoepf told the commission that she is still $3,000 in debt after shouldering a majority of the costs for the races last year.

Since the races were organized so late in the season, Schoepf said they missed the deadline to apply to the state for financial help. That’s different this year.

State Board of Horse Racing Vice Chairman Mike Tatsey told the commission that the board could only put a little money into the races last year, but this year the board could put, at minimum, a day’s worth of purses, maybe more.

The state also pays for jockey insurance, he said.

Schoepf also said that the race dates for events in Missoula and Great Falls are still in question, and Kalispell might be able to benefit financially if those races don’t come through.

And while she did not ask the county to sponsor the races, Schoepf said the horse races did benefit the fair’s pocketbook.

“I think it’s totally known the fair benefitted greatly from horse racing last year and reaped the benefits,” she said.

According to a letter sent to the commission from State Board of Horse Racing Secretary Ryan Sherman, last year’s races were one of the state’s major success stories.

“In two days of racing, over $103,000 was wagered on the 16 races offered,” Sherman wrote. “That was an average handle o f $51,500, one of the best averages for racing in Northwest Montana for many years.”

The Kalispell and Missoula races helped drive up horse racing revenues in the state, Sherman wrote. Total revenues hit 1,435,000 in 2010, an increase of $421,000 over 2009, he added.

Sherman advocated county support for the races, highlighting the achievements from Schoepf, Cunnington and the local Turf Club.

“We do understand that counties can’t justify financially supporting a whole race meet as it once did, but we would certainly ask that you consider the dedication that your local Turf Club has to provide a successful event to the NWMF,” Sherman wrote.

Tatsey also lauded the race organizers’ efforts, saying that the state board will support racing events in the western part of Montana.

“We want to put as much as we can into horse racing here because it’s valuable to this part of the state,” he said.

The commissioners expressed general support for horse racing at the fair, but each member said the decision-making power lay largely with the county’s Fair Board. Commissioner Jim Dupont said there was a lot going on during last year’s fair since the Fair Board and manager position were in flux.

Commissioner Dale Lauman said he was confident the Turf Club could hash out its differences with the fair through discussions.

“I think your group and the Fair Board and (Fair Manager Mark Campbell) need to sit down and work together,” Lauman said.

“I think you can work out a real good working relationship,” he added.

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