Aficionados try to garner support for harness races Mo. State Fair

Monday, August 18, 2008

SEDALIA, Mo. -- There were no crumpled betting slips, just raffles for free lottery tickets.

A gaggle of teens tossed a football in the track infield while roadies set up a stage for an evening concert by country singer Sara Evans. And barely 80 people had their pick of seats in a grandstand that can hold 100 times as many spectators.

The scene at the Missouri State Fair during Friday's poorly publicized harness races exemplified the long-shot struggle facing racing boosters who hope to reintroduce pari-mutuel betting as a ticket to revive the state's long-dormant horse racing industry.

"This is the best kept secret at the State Fair," said track announcer Charles "Herb" Butler, a recent appointee to the five-member Missouri Horse Racing Commission. The state panel met in June for the first time in a decade.

105-year tradition

Horse racing wasn't always an afterthought in Missouri, which ranks among the top seven states in horse population.

Harness racing has been a staple in Sedalia for 105 years and once attracted the country's top riders with total purses exceeding $1 million for a week of races as part of a Midwestern fair circuit.

By contrast, this year's two-day race card featured a top purse of $3,000 -- a $1,000 increase sought by the new commission -- and a minimum $1,000 purse.

For winning owners, that translates into first-place prizes of $450 to $1,350 -- not pocket change, but certainly not enough to rival the take at Churchill Downs, Pimlico or Belmont, the sites of the Triple Crown races.

More recently, an aborted three-year effort to allow gambling on horse races at the fair ended badly in 1988 after the track operator who leased the fairgrounds filed for bankruptcy, leaving a trail of unpaid debts.

Among those who didn't get paid that year were winning horse owners -- in part because of the racing commission's failure to follow a state law requiring track operators to post a bond guaranteeing money to cover purses.

Gambling laws

Existing state law remains a significant hurdle to the return of gambling at the fairgrounds or elsewhere in Missouri.

Missouri voters approved pari-mutuel wagering at horse tracks in 1984 but authorized only limited simulcasting, where bettors wager on races at other tracks that are shown on television screens. Under current law, a track may offer simulcast betting only for as many days as it holds live horse races.

Efforts to lift that restriction and allow year-round betting on simulcasts failed narrowly in the legislature in 2002, effectively shutting down any further discussion until now.

Casino gambling in Missouri is now limited to boats along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Butler and several other racing commission members said at the new panel's initial meeting in Jefferson City that any horse racing tracks would need to operate in conjunction with existing casinos.

And Missouri voters in November will consider a ballot measure that would limit the number of casinos allowed in the state to those already built or under construction.

Racing season proposal

On Thursday, Butler and other racing boosters met with State Fair director Marion Lucas to discuss the possible return of a 30-day racing season to Sedalia as soon as 2009. Lucas asked his industry counterparts to return with a more detailed proposal that includes financial projections.

"We'll have to make money or we sure can't do it," Lucas said Friday, noting that lawmakers had to bail out the fair last year with a $573,000 supplemental appropriation because of poor attendance in 2007, when sweltering temperatures kept many fairgoers away.

For Morris Brown, a Sedalia horse owner who doubles as both a competitor and race director at the State Fair, the small-scale event is as much about preserving racing's Missouri heritage as returning to the big time.

"We're just trying to keep the tradition alive," he said.

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