“Hold your horses!”
The Long Range Planning Committee for Metra Park has been asked to delay any plans to replace the horse race track until after the 2019 State Legislative Session, in the hope of passing legislation that could resurrect horse racing in Billings and elsewhere in the state.
And, last week, the Montana Board of Horse Racing unanimously supported proposed legislation brought to them by Dan Fuchs which would give them authority over pari -mutuel wagering of historical horse racing terminals, a relatively new approach to gambling which holds the potential of generating new revenue to support live horse racing in Montana.
Fuchs, a former Montana state legislator with a life-long passion for horse racing, will be monitoring the bill through the state legislature which he says will “level the playing field” for horse racing with video gaming machines. It was the advent of video gaming machines that brought about the decline in live horse racing in Montana.
Exacta Systems, the primary marketer of HHR wagering terminals, is a client of Fuchs’ firm, Triangle Public Affairs, a government relations company. A shareholder of Exacta Systems is Harold Hamm, owner of Continental Resources, which helped pioneer oil development in the Bakken.
Historic Horse Racing brings to casinos a new option for gamblers that has already proven very successful in bringing live horse racing back to Wyoming, and a few other states. And, while it is being opposed by the gaming industry in Montana, Fuchs believes they are misjudging its impact on an industry that has only seen flat revenues since the state imposed smoking bans in casinos and bars. It will not compete with poker and keno machines, he says, but will bring new gamblers into the market because it provides more choice.
Regardless, resurrecting horse racing poses huge economic benefits to the state’s agriculture economy, the loss of which in the past has been profoundly felt by a wide range of ag related businesses and tourism, said Fuchs, who laments the fact that “it is a part of our economy that we let get away from us.” Besides the ag support businesses which sell equipment, vehicles and feed to horse owners, breeders and trainers, the competition draws hundreds of visitors to the state to participate in the events.
The last horse race was held in Billings at Yellowstone Downs in September 2011, after years of struggling against the gambling competition of keno and porker machines, which emerged with the legalization of video gaming in 1985. While at one time a vigorous industry in Montana, with numerous horse racing venues throughout the state, Montana horse racing has since dwindled to a struggle to produce only 14 days of horseracing, annually, with venues remaining only in Great Falls and Miles City.
Pari- mutuel betting offers much higher payouts than do video gaming machines – payouts of as much as $50,000 or more. Being true pari-mutuel wager, HHR is not subject to the same wager and prize limitations imposed on other gambling. That is what Fuchs believes will generate more excitement for gaming, drawing more participation and becoming “a shot in the arm” for existing casino owners, who would be able to add the new option without any additional licensing or qualifiers. Casino owners typically get 8 to 10 percent of the “handle,” which is the money put into the terminal. The state gets about 15 percent.
Historical Horse Racing (HHR) wagering is based on real horse races from the past that have been scrubbed of all identifying information except for stats that still allow gamblers to apply the same kind of analysis they might give any horse race. The major difference that sets HHR apart from traditional casino style games is that the results of the games are not random. (The definition of pari-mutuel is the operator does not have a stake in the outcome of the wager and the net pool is returned to the players.)
Fuchs said that the company’s system and games have successfully passed the rigorous pari-mutuel wagering and gaming testing of GLI, a regulatory testing agency and has been approved by every commission and regulatory agency in every jurisdiction in which Exacta operates.
A portion of the revenues generated by the wagering terminals is directed to the support of live horse racing.
HHR wagering has been especially successful in Wyoming where all tracks are once again in operation, and the Wyoming breeder program distributed $1.7 million to Wyoming breeders in 2017. Fuchs pointed out that this is what Wyoming has achieved after only six years of HHR wagering. Other states which have introduced the gambling option are Kentucky, Virginia and Idaho.
Tom Tucker, the Executive Director of the Montana Board of Horse Racing estimates that only 500 HHR wagering terminals placed in Montana casinos would generate $510,375 for the MBOHR which could fund up to 38 additional racing days in Montana. “This is a very conservative estimate,” said Fuchs.
The legislation which is being sought simply changes the definition of the HBOHR’s oversight authority.
Fuchs said that he has been talking to a wide-variety of business owners in Billings and other communities, gauging their support and it has been very enthusiastic. “People really want to see horse racing come back,” he said.
A new organization hopes to draw upon that enthusiasm to support and help fund promotional efforts. The Montana Racehorse Owners & Breeders Coalition has been formed and is raising money to hire an executive director to help lobby for the legislation.