Future of horse racing in South Dakota could be in only one town

Victoria Lusk vlusk@aberdeennews.com
Farm Forum

When the starting gates open at the Brown County Fairgrounds this weekend, the horses aren’t the only thing that are off.

So is the money.

As a business, South Dakota horse racing is struggling — so much so that the viability of being able to have races in two towns is being questioned for future years.

“It’s getting down to a point where we’re going to have to go to one race track, either Fort Pierre or Aberdeen, or we’re just not going to get the horses,” said Jerry Oxner, president of the South Dakota Quarter Horse Racing Association.

That’s due to dwindling purse amounts. The purse is the money paid out to winning horse owners.

In South Dakota, purse money comes from simulcasts, but there’s only one site left in South Dakota, Oxner said. It’s in North Sioux City.

A small fraction of the funds also come from gambling in Deadwood, he said.

Statistics from the South Dakota Commission on Gaming show that money wagered on horse racing simulcasts in South Dakota decreased almost 13 percent during the last fiscal year from July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016. The decrease amounted to roughly $170,000.

Horse racing aside, there are plenty of other options for those looking to place a bet in the state.

“When the (video lottery) machines started coming out and scratch tickets, people quit putting that money on horses,” Oxner said.

Nowadays, purse money is about half of what it used to be, he said.

Purses are paid out on a point system. The winner of a race, for instance, gets 10 points with the number of points decreasing by place,Oxnersaid. A point used to be worth $80 or $90, he said. In other words, $800 or $900 went to the owner of a horse that won a race. Now, it’s closer $350 or $400.

Oxner isn’t the only one who recognizes that a decision about moving the races to just one South Dakota city might need to be made sooner rather than later.

“I hate to say it, but Jerry is probably right,” said Bubby Haar, president of Northeast Area Horse Racing. “It’s a sad deal because once a track goes away, very seldom do they come back.”

Purses for horse races in South Dakota have decreased or leveled off for the last 15 years or so, he said.

Racing-related expenses, however, haven’t. They continue to rise.

There used to be three weekends of horse racing in Aberdeen, Oxner said. In recent years, there have only been two.

Mike Schmidt has been the general manager of Northeast Area Horse Racing for 16 years. He said there used to be six days of races over three weekends in Aberdeen. Now, with Memorial Day, there are five days over two weekends.

The upside, he said, is that there’s now a break between the races in Aberdeen and Fort Pierre, which allows the horses to recuperate.

Fewer races has also helped keep purses respectable, Oxner said.

Schmidt said purses have been pretty steady the last few years, though he knows they aren’t what the horse owners would like them to be.

Haar’s children both have horses that race locally. Racing horses in South Dakota isn’t exactly a great way to make money, he said.

It’s not just those placing bets taking a risk. When horses don’t fare well, their owners lose out.

“It’s not really a money-making deal,” Oxner said. “But it’s get to the point where instead of losing a little, you’re losing a lot.”

Haar echoed that comment.

“It’s just hard to make any money on horses in this part of the country,” he said.

“It’s a double-edged sword. The purse falls, the horses don’t show up,” Oxner said.

Nobody is ready to say which town could ultimately be the sole host of horse races or when a decision will be made.

“No one wants to see either one go away, but I think everyone kind of knows that it might be an issue,” Haar said. “In a perfect world we want to see both of them be successful.”

But that might not be realistic.

“There’s been talk the last two years, but it seems nobody wants to make that motion in our meetings that weonly want to run in Aberdeen or make a motion that we only run in Fort Pierre,” Oxner said. “Nobody wants to do that yet. And I don’t know how it would unfold.”

Schmidt agrees it would make sense for the races to stay in one town, and maybe span three weekends. But whichever town lost out would take a hit, he said.

“People don’t realize what horse people throw into the economy. If there’s no racing, we won’t keep breeding. We won’t raise any horses, and then we don’t buy halters, food, oats, fuel, horse trailers or new pickups,” Oxner said. “It’s a trickle-down thing.

“We don’t own a boat or a camper. We own quarter horses,” he said.

As a nonprofit group, Northeast Area Horse Racing has been trying some new things to improve its finances, Haar said.

This year, for example, Williams & Ree will play in the Holum Expo Building at the fairgrounds Saturday night. Tickets are $20 in advance or $27 at the door. Doors open at 7 p.m.

The group has also sought out more advertisers. And the community can help, too, Haar said.

“They can start by coming out Saturday night and having a good time,” he said.

And by attending the races, even if they don’t bet. Organizers areencouraging families to attend bygiving away two bikes — one to a boy and one to a girl, 11 or younger —Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

The concession sales help as well, Haar said.

Follow @vlusk_AAN on Twitter.

Northeast Area Horse Races

When: Saturday, Sunday, Monday, post time at 1 p.m.

Where: Brown County Fairgrounds.

Admission: Free. Betting and concessions available.

• Williams & Ree to perform Saturday night at the Holum Expo Building at the fairgrounds. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets $20 in advance or $27 at the door.

• A horse sale will follow Sunday’s races. It begins an hour after the races finish.

Bubby Haar, president of Northeast Area Horse Racing. Farm Forum Photo by John Davis