Ninety-nine years after Lady Goo Goo won the first horse race at the Missoula County Fairgrounds, commissioners cut the cord with the sport Wednesday.
Citing obligations of fiscal responsibility to taxpayers and what Commissioner Jean Curtiss called “the slow death” of the racing industry, Bill Carey, Michele Landquist and Curtiss voted unanimously – and defended their decision vigorously – to accept a planning committee’s controversial recommendation to exclude the half-mile racetrack and facilities from development plans.
They did it in the form of an update to the revolving five-year plan for the fairgrounds, one that tentatively schedules the first big-ticket renovations for fiscal years 2017 and 2018.
But Curtiss said commissioners have already instructed fairgrounds director Steve Earle not to entertain any more proposals to stage race meets before that.
“Until we can finally say that we’re not going to let the track sit there and crumble waiting for horse racing to come back, or to let horses race in the (interim), we can’t move on,” she said.
There have been just two days of racing in the past six years, both of them in 2010 when a private company headed by Eric Spector of California produced a weekend meet. The last full-scale race meet in Missoula was held in 2006. It had been a popular staple at the fair for the previous 53 years.
“We’re dealing with a once-viable business or industry, horse racing, that’s no longer viable,” Carey said. “We just have to accept that and move on.”
Landquist, who serves on the 15-member fairgrounds committee that commissioners appointed two years ago, told racing supporters in the room and on community access television that she has nothing against the sport.
“If horse racing’s really going to make a comeback, go buy some land somewhere and make a horse track and make it come back,” Landquist said. “But having horse racing for seven days out of the year, and it’s really only three, maybe five – that’s not very sustainable, and it’s just seasonal at that.”
The hearing at the commissioners’ regular biweekly Wednesday meeting included passionate pleas not to ax the track yet.
Two state legislators from Missoula, Sen. Cliff Larsen and Rep. Kimberly Dudik, urged commissioners to overrule the advisory committee and keep the track.
“I as a country boy really resist the idea of turning this facility into something that’s really more of a broad-scope enterprise than remaining focused on agriculture,” Larsen said.
Racing has been proven to increase the revenue of concessionaires during fair time, he added.
“Why not allow it until you’re ready to build something new and better?”
Dudik said there’s been substantial public outcry against destroying the racetrack and she doesn’t think the committee sufficiently incorporated that sentiment into its planning. She pointed out that when the fairgrounds were built in 1914, the racetrack was the first structure that appeared.
“It is the lynchpin of the Missoula County Fairgrounds,” Dudik said. “This racetrack would be 100 years old next year, but instead of having a 100-year anniversary, we’re considering demolishing it.”
Former state Sen. Dale Mahlum of Missoula also spoke against losing the track. He chairs a Montana Board of Horse Racing that he said is making strides to bring back the industry.
“If we lose the racetrack we lose part of our identity,” Mahlum said.
Missoula County’s decision comes less than a week after Cascade County commissioners approved a one-year contract for the Great Falls Turf Club to conduct a four-day meet. Miles City completed three days of racing last weekend, the only other state-approved racing slated for 2013.
Chuck Leonard, a University of Montana professor, wondered about the objectivity of an advisory committee with members affiliated with Glacier Ice Rink and the steering committee for a Missoula Events Center.
“If it’s a choice between a racetrack and an event/ice hockey arena, there are people who potentially have the perception – and perception is important here – of having a conflict of interest,” he said.
“They’re not the ones making the decision,” Curtiss told him. “These three people here (the commissioners) are, and we don’t have a conflict.”
Harvey Hergett, president of the board of the Missoula Area Youth Hockey Association, said he agrees with the decision to remove the track and urged that it be replaced by an events center that the ice community would use and support.
Jason Shearer, a charter member of the advisory committee and associate executive director of Missoula YMCA, said it’s not a question of horse racing versus an events center or hockey.
“It’s an issue about community impact and community benefit,” he said, adding the committee challenged racing supporters over the past year.
“Where is horse racing? Are we taking something away, or are we recognizing that something doesn’t exist?” Shearer said. “We just simply need to ask ourselves what use might we put that land to that does more for Missoula.”
“That’s taxpayer money that’s going into these grounds and facilities,” she said. “It makes sense that we’d want them to be sustainable and kind of paying for themselves instead of bleeding us all dry.”