Subscribe for 17¢ / day
Ben Carlson

Yellowstone Downs Director of Horse Racing Ben Carlson at the horse racing office at Metra Park Friday.

Montana horse racing is "pretty much in a state of turmoil" once again.

So says Ben Carlson, race director at MetraPark's Yellowstone Downs, whose own successful race meet in Billings is being threatened by what has certainly been a crazy offseason statewide for the Sport of Kings.

Mounting financial problems have prompted the Montana Board of Horse Racing to indefinitely suspend simulcast betting at off-track sites across the state and fire Ryan Sherman as its executive secretary.

Carlson said the Yellowstone Horse Racing Alliance, which has been conducting the racing at the MetraPark track since 1997, is already working on a plan to make the Billings meet self-supporting in the event that state money for purses and track expenses is unavailable this summer.

Yellowstone Downs' fans were treated to another great season in 2011, and Carlson would like to see that continue in the future.

"I guess I've pretty much made the commitment that we're going to run," he said earlier this week. "The number of days that we're going to run is something we can't determine at this time."

Carlson estimated that the alliance will need to generate an additional $140,000 in the coming months through sponsors and advertising to run the usual eight-day, four-weekend meet on its own.

"The marketing crew ... their pumps are primed. They're ready to go," Carlson said of the Yellowstone Downs staff. "We're just going to have to get out and give it a go and see what we can do. We'll run as many days as is economically possible."

Yellowstone Downs was awarded its usual eight race days by the MBHR in early December. Opening weekend is tentatively set for Aug. 25-26, with racing through Sept. 15-16.

Carlson said Billings has the "biggest and best" racing facility in the state, with a well-maintained track.

"It's just a good calling card," he said.

At the moment, though, the MBHR, which is under the guidance of the Department of Livestock, is in the midst of formulating a rescue plan after discovering that it's around $560,000 in debt.

That deficit reportedly stems from overspending on the state's live racing in 2011, and from the costs of assuming control of the state's simulcast network in late 2010 after it had been a private operation for years.

"You've got to try to stay positive," said Carlson, who has seen more than his share of issues with the horse-racing industry over the years. "This is going to be a little bit bigger challenge than normal."

The suspension of simulcast racing at seven sites across the state, including two in Billings, is particularly troubling because a portion of that wagering is set aside and distributed by the MBHR to help with purses and other track expenses for the state's live meets.

Carlson said purses and other expenses run about $40,000 per race day at Yellowstone Downs, which is the state's largest meet.

He is hopeful that the simulcast network, which was suspended earlier this month, will be back up and running in around two months.

Tom Tucker of IMS Racing in Billings has been mentioned as somebody to possibly take over the simulcast operations if and when the MBHR puts it out to bid, said Carlson.

Tucker was the manager of Montana Simulcast Partners, which used to conduct the year-round wagering in the state and has a history of being profitable.

Most recently, the MBHR had assumed control of the state's simulcasting from California-based Montana Entertainment, which operated for two years.

"That was a pretty expensive move," Carlson said.

A three-man business advisory panel, appointed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer in October, is now helping horse racing sort out its problems. 

And while the financial situation surrounding the sport is indeed tumultuous, it is also fluid.

"They want the dust to settle," Carlson said of the board. "They want that (two-month) time period to see just exactly where they're at and what they can do about where they're at."

Yellowstone Downs experienced one of its most successful meets last summer, with daily averages of 3,957 for attendance and $87,034 for betting handle.

With numbers like that, Carlson said horse racing is worth saving in Billings from both an enjoyment and economic standpoint.

"During that month of activity, we don't have to take a back seat to too many events," Carlson said of the economic impact.

Jobs would also be at stake if racing disappears.

"It takes about 100 people on race days," Carlson said. "Our payroll runs right about $95,000 a year. You take that payroll money during the race meet and what we paid out in purse money during the race meet, and the bulk of that money turns right over here in Billings."

Carlson said the alliance doesn't currently have a 2012 contract with MetraPark for spring training, which usually starts around April 1, or for the race meet later this summer. He said he has updated MetraPark general manager Bill Dutcher on horse racing's unstable status at the state level.

"They're working with us and not against us," Carlson said of the county.

Last year, only Miles City, Billings and Kalispell held live horse racing in the state. Missoula and Great Falls have been considering ways to bring the sport back.

While everybody is in limbo at the moment, Carlson still likes Billings' chances of having horse racing again this summer.

"I think the odds are better at Yellowstone Downs than they are at a lot of other places," he said.