This year, racing officials and county fair management at smaller tracks across the nation have been faced with the dark reality of rising jockey insurance costs.
While one track in Montana has closed for the season due to the increased bills, the remaining four in the state, along with tracks in Washington and Oregon, have found solutions to hold their scheduled meets, at least for one more year.
In February, Mather & Co., which is based in Philadelphia but offers coverage to tracks across the nation, announced insurance rates that have risen from about $1,200 per race day with a $1,000 deductible to more than $2,000, plus a $10,000 deposit and a $10,000 deductible per accident claim. Overall, on-track accident insurance coverage increased from $100,000 to $500,000.
Sam Murfitt, executive director of the Montana Board of Horse Racing, urged the Missoula County commissioners March 28 not to abandon horse racing at this year's Western Montana Fair. The commissioners, on a 2-1 vote, decided to keep the sport at least through 2007.
In addition, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire has signed legislation designed to keep that state's four non-profit racetracks in business after they were hit with the threatening insurance increases.
Montana Commissioners Bill Carey and Barbara Evans, who supported racing this year, made it clear they won't do the same again unless solutions are found. Gov. Brian Schweitzer is forming a task force to study the future of horse racing, and the state Board of Horse Racing is asking the 2007 Legislature for tax money to support the industry.
Montana's horse racing has suffered trends over the years, including fewer fairs offering the sport; declining handle and number of race days; smaller fields; dwindling numbers of horse trainers; and unpredictable or declining payouts from simulcast racing and the State Board of Horse Racing.
"We are looking forward to making this the best meet ever," said Toni Hinton, coordinator of horse racing for the Western Montana Fair. Though the track may have to dip into simulcast funds to cover insurance costs this year, Hinton hopes to find sponsors over the next few months that will keep the track racing in 2007.
Encouraged by community petitions and support, Hinton remains optimistic about the future. "We're excited to move ahead...I don't want to see this as a trickle down effect. If we lose the smaller tracks, it will eventually affect the bigger tracks (across the country)," she said.
During the week of March 19, Montana's Flathead County decided to drop horse racing this summer, which means Missoula's portion of state money allocated for racetracks will be higher. It also means Flathead fans may drive to Missoula for the races.
Meanwhile, fair tracks in Oregon have reached a solution to the insurance dilemma through a joint effort on the part of the five fair tracks, the Oregon Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the Oregon Quarter Horse Association, and the Oregon Racing Commission.
Together, the organizations have contributed more than $100,000 toward jockey insurance, which will cover Montana's 28 days of racing at all of their fair meets, the first of which begins May 20.
"We're clear -- we're good to go," said Rod Lowe, president of Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association. "I know what everyone's going through, though. For a lot of these small fair meet states, it's tough to come up with that kind of money. To throw a triple increase on insurance is going to devastate some tracks, I'm sure, unless someone comes up with some help."
Lowe said Oregon racing officials had originally considered reducing purses and the Jockey's Incentive funds to supplement the insurance. The Racing Commission did not want to see that happen, however, and decided to step in with the necessary funds.
In addition, in an effort to lower rates, Lowe said the American Quarter Horse Association hopes to umbrella the 90 fair meets across the country facing insurance increases under one policy.
"Collaborative efforts of groups offering funds have made the insurance problem not as severe," said Jodi Hanson, executive director of the Oregon Racing Commission. "We'll be looking for more long-term solutions in the future. I don't know whether that will take legislation or not -- it's all just talk at this point. I do think our summer race meets are very successful and, for now, the future is very healthy."