After a 60-year run, there will be no horse racing in Aberdeen this year.
That’s sad news for fans and for a region that has significant history with the sport.
Hall-of-fame jockey Earl Sande rode Gallant Fox to the Triple Crown in 1930. He’s a Groton native. Throughout his career, he won 26.4 percent of his races, including the Belmont Stakes five times and the Kentucky Derby three times. He was also a successful trainer.
Mobridge’s Bill Mott is also a hall-of-famer. A renowned trainer, his most successful horse was Cigar, winner of 16 straight top-flight races, a streak that started in 1995. Cigar won the Breeders’ Cup and ended that year with more than $4.8 million in earnings. In 2010, Mott trained Drosselmeyer, winner of the Belmont Stakes.
And trainer Steve Amussen was born in Gettysburg. His horses have won the Breeders’ Cup, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Kentucky Oaks and Dubai World Cup. He, too, is in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Horses Amussen has trained have finished first more than 8,000 times.
Locally and nationwide, however, things haven’t exactly been great for horse racing recently. And there’s not enough money for 2019 races in South Dakota.
Fort Pierre announced a few weeks ago that it would not host races this year. Aberdeen followed suit in recent days.
Some have voiced an “it’s about time” attitude. They might prefer the stock car races start earlier in Aberdeen or be leery of the industry and how horses are treated.
That’s the wrong attitude. But there is a larger question. And that’s whether horse racing can make a go of it — financially — nowadays in South Dakota.
The answer appears to be no.
In 2001, the state Legislature transferred $2.25 million from two special horse racing accounts to the general appropriations bill. The money went to the state fair, to fund shelters and for other purposes. Then-Gov. Bill Janklow led that charge.
That money came, for the most part, from a 4.5-percent tax on simulcast betting on out-of-state races.
Opponents of the transfer said it would jeopardize the future of horse racing in South Dakota. They were right.
The move so many years ago might have been for the greater good, but that doesn’t mean it was fair. Even if it was eventually upheld in a 3-2 decision by the South Dakota Supreme Court.
A few years before the Legislature’s move in 2001, the state’s horse racing industry generously allowed Janklow to take $250,000 out of its funds to help domestic abuse shelters. That practice continued annually until the state’s fingers got even stickier. And it’s been tough times for horse racing ever since.
Now, nearly two decades later, it’s time to acknowledge that that money’s not coming back. The Legislature has repeatedly shown a lack of appetite to find the money to make things right with the horse racing industry.
Horse racing has been left to fend for itself. And it just can’t.
That’s the new problem and the new reality.
The money taken — stolen, some would say — from the horse racing funds notwithstanding, it’s not the state’s job to keep a few weekends of equine excitement viable from year to year, though you might argue that’s just what happened with the state fair in the early 2000s. Even so, we all have to admit that South Dakota doesn’t have spare money to fund four or five days of horse racing each spring.
What the Legislature shouldn’t do, however, is hinder a plan that might — there’s no guarantee — solve the problem. And that’s what state lawmakers did this year, though largely without support from our local senators and representatives, thankfully.
House Bill 1251 would have allotted 5 percent of gross receipts on all pari-mutual bets by South Dakotans at out-of-state simulcast parlors to South Dakota horse racing. But defined by some as a new tax or an expansion of gambling — and laden with confusing jargon — it found about as much traction in Pierre as an old nag on a muddy racetrack.
That’s even though the only people who would have paid anything had it passed were bettors and other horse racing supporters.
Senate Bill 128 provided $120,000 for horse racing this year — down from what was once about $600,000. So a fairly meager handout was offered.
But horse racing officials decided that’s just not enough for there to be races this year. And that could mean trouble for the future. Trainers, jockeys and others will make new plans.
Aberdeen and Fort Pierre will be out of the circuit. And once that happens, it can be tough to get back in.
Our local horse racing folks are doing their best to remain optimistic, hoping the lawmakers who have consistently failed them for decades will find their whips as the future of racing rounds the corner and heads down the stretch for what could well be the final time during the 2020 session.
But the odds of saving live horse racing in South Dakota don’t seem like a great bet just now. For the people in and around our community who have worked so hard in recent years to keep the races going, that stinks. We can’t forget that or dismiss their substantial efforts to support the industry and give us some entertainment each spring.
An industry with six decades of history in Aberdeen is sadly struggling. That it’s not a major feeder to the state’s economy nor a major spectator event doesn’t help it much. Nor does the fact that betting is viewed by some residents and legislators as a hurtful vice.
For a state that depends on gambling revenue to balance its budget each year to try and take the high moral ground now is as wrong as raiding the racing funds was in 2001. Lawmakers should allow horse racing to try and save itself next year by approving the out-of-state simulcast measure or some other reasonable proposal, if offered.
But the horse racing industry probably can’t depend on Pierre. Rightly or wrongly, it’s probably going to have to find a way to be self-sufficient. And if it can’t, it will likely fade into history like the accomplishments of Earl Sande.