Horse racing has struggled in Montana for the past 10 years, but the blow of skyrocketing jockey insurance costs have left some tracks pondering whether to close their doors forever.
While racing facilities in Miles City, Billings, and Great Falls have committed to race for at least one more year, those in Missoula and Kalispell are on the fence as to whether they'll be able to foot the bill.
The five tracks are scheduled to race a total of 29 days from May 14 through Sept. 24.
Missoula County commissioners were given an advisory board recommendation March 22 for horses to keep racing at their track in 2006. Many on the board believed it would be more costly to cancel racing than it would pay increased insurance costs. Final decisions on whether Missoula and Kalispell will hold their regular meets this summer will be made by the commissioners in their respective counties the week of March 27.
In February, Mather & Co., a national firm that insures all five Montana tracks, 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.
"We've had our nose to the grindstone to make our income match expenses for nine years," said Ben Carlson, director of racing at Yellowstone Downs at Metro Park in Billings. He said most other tracks in the state have been tied to city or county commissioners for funds. "Their events are tied to their fairs," he said.
Carlson said his track had decided to stay up and running, even before the state offered to fund racing facilities for catastrophic accidents. "Come to hell and high water, we're scheduled for eight dates and we're going to run them," he said.
Lori Cox, marketing manager for the Montana Expo Park in Great Falls, said the insurance money would come from a simulcast fund for the 2007 season, "which pretty much puts an end (to our track) at 2007," she said. "We don't know what's going to happen, but the situation looks very dire for 2007, and (using simulcast funds) simply is a mandate for this year just to get us running."
Jockey insurance is paid by Montana's fairgrounds and racetracks, not the jockeys themselves. Since they have up to two years to file a claim, the cost of medical care and insurance is open for a lengthy amount of time after a race is finished, fairgrounds officials said.
In addition to being able to borrow from future simulcast funds, Sam Murfitt, executive director of the Montana Board of Horse Racing, said he and his board had agreed to free up another $10,000 for tracks to pay the initial insurance premium this year.
"What we're looking at right now (with rising insurance costs) has upset the apple cart, and they're putting their nose to the grindstone and taking on some financial responsibility they haven't had to do in the past," Carlson said of the tracks.
Carlson said Yellowstone Downs might pick up some of the Missoula and Kalispell dates should they decide to discontinue the sport in 2006. "I don't look at that to happen, though," he said. "I think they'll get off the pot and decide to run."
With horse racing traditions dating back nearly 100 years, track officials are more than disheartened about the situation.
"It's very discouraging that the impact of an insurance issue would actually erase the sport from the state," Cox said. "And that's basically what we're facing. Horse racing is heavily subsidized. It hasn't been making its own way at our track, or at others. This has been a slow death process, and though we were committed to continuing the sport and trying to make it run regardless, (the insurance issue) is almost like a nail in the coffin--it's a brutal blow to horse racing."
"We know we can't continue like we have for years," Carlson said. "We need more race days, higher purses, and we need to reduce the costs of the horsemen coming to the track. Unfortunately, we can't make a move in that direction in 2006, but hopefully in the future we can come out of it and continue."