The Minnesota Racing Commission gave its blessing Wednesday to an alliance between former rivals: struggling Canterbury Park racetrack and nearby Mystic Lake casino.
A divided commission signed off on an offer from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux to pump $75 million from its casino into the purses at Canterbury Park over the next decade. In exchange, Canterbury officials agreed to drop their long running campaign to legalize slot machines at Minnesota racetracks and to join with the tribes to block future racino proposals.
The money starts flowing when the horses start running Thursday night. Instead of the expected $100,000, Thursday's purses will increase by a third and continue to increase all year until Canterbury can hold its place among the top 20 tracks in the nation.
The deal, along with an $8.5 million marketing partnership with the tribe's Mystic Lake casino, is a staggering windfall in a state that has struggled with meager purses and a steadily declining population of racing stock.
"This is as good a deal as the horse industry in Minnesota is going to get for the lives of many of the people in this room today," Commissioner James Lane told a room packed with worried horse industry officials who were themselves divided. Some supported Wednesday's deal, but others -- including representatives of Minnesota's only other horse racing track -- staunchly opposed it.
Harness track left out
Left out of the deal was Running Aces harness track in Anoka County, which not only missed out on a multimillion-dollar tribal partnership, but lost Canterbury as its ally in pushing legislation to add video slots at both tracks to create so-called racinos.
Running Aces spokesman John Derus said the harness track has become the "redheaded stepchild" of Minnesota racing.
If Running Aces called the tribes to get a similar purse-fattening deal, he said, "We'd probably get a dial tone."
Several Anoka County commissioners attended the hearing and agreed the deal could hurt Running Aces, which could hurt the 500-plus local residents employed by the track. Anoka County Commission Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah said the deal creates an "uneven playing field" for the harness track.
After almost four hours of testimony, public comments and debate, commissioners voted 5-3 in favor of the deal.
Racing Commission member Jaqueline Duncanson said the situation felt like being "a mom with two kids. One just won the lottery, one can barely make the mortgage payments."
The mood at Canterbury Park has been "more positive than I've ever seen it," said Canterbury president Randy Sampson. The increased purse size will be awarded retroactively, to include the previous weeks' winners as well.
Sampson said that uncertainty over whether Canterbury would ever get a racino had hovered over the park for years. "If we do, it'll be great, if not, what happens?" Sampson said. "This just provides a 10-year window of much more certainty." Sampson estimates that Canterbury has spent an average of $500,000 a year for the past three years lobbying to bring slot machines to the racetracks.
Now, he told commissioners, "Racino is dead."
Horse racing has dropped precipitously in recent years, bringing the Minnesota horse industry to the verge of collapse, with barely more than 100 thoroughbred foals born in the state this year.
But state lawmaker-turned-racino lobbyist Dick Day insisted racino is far from dead. He pledged to keep pushing the issue in the Legislature, now on behalf of Running Aces. Canterbury's deal with Mystic Lake requires the casino not only to drop its lobbying campaign for racino, but to join the tribes in lobbying against it.
Time to end the fight
Sampson said that after many years and $1.5 million spent in a fruitless pursuit of racino, the time had come to end the fight.
"I believe our chances for racino anytime soon would be very difficult," Sampson said. "I would be reluctant to spend any serious money or effort on it, because I do believe our chances at this point are not good."
Sampson said it's possible other Minnesota tribal casinos may want to forge their own partnership with Running Aces.
"I do believe that there is an opportunity for them," he said. "I certainly hope so. Our deal works much better if they would pursue a similar path, if we all were working together as opposed to fighting against each other."
Jennifer Brooks, Star Tribune