Ft. Pierre Horse Races seeks funding from sports betting

About 700 people enjoyed the pleasant weather and fast horses during the two weekends of racing in Ft. Pierre. Photo by Michelle Maupin Barrett
Michelle Maupin Barrett

Dick Jones, a longtime horse trainer, has been around the track since he was 11.

“We moved to Fort Pierre when I was ten. I used to hot walk horses for 50 cents apiece when I was 11,” he remembers. He lived in town and would walk to the racetrack to walk the horses for other horse owners.

At the age of 14, he started galloping horses for a trainer out in the country. A license was required to gallop horses on the track, and the minimum age to apply for a license was 16, so Jones rode horses at the owners’ place off the track for a couple of years. “Then the state came in and I had to wait until I turned 16,” he remembers.

Frank Turner and his brother Bob Turner were two of the gentleman he rode horses for.

Jones remembers riding horses every spring for extra money. Eventually he became a trainer and took horses in. He himself owned a few horses, but not too many. He mostly worked with Thoroughbreds but recalls a couple of Quarter Horses throughout the years.

In 1990 he began training horses full time. “I spent a lot of time in Nebraska, Minnesota, I raced in Iowa, Kansas City, Ohio a couple of times,” he remembers.

His wins include some from Canterbury Park in Minnesota, and one year he trained the Quarter Horse mare of the year. Jones trained horses for Ray Goehring of Mobridge, as well as Lyle Hedman. He rode horses for Clarence Berry.

Bloodlines weren’t a big deal to him. “I had a couple of horses that were cheap horses but they won all over, not just in Ft. Pierre.” He said he never could afford the high priced bloodlines.

He remembers another horse that won 10 races who was “well bred, but cheap.”

In the last couple of years, a race might pay $1,700 to win, which is down from previous years.

Jones expects to have another horse or two in training next year, on his place on the edge of Ft. Pierre, but probably not too many of them. “When I was training, I was gone 10 months of the year. It’s kind of nice to be home for a while. Whenever I’d get done, I’d come home and get a job so I could make some money.”

Jones served as the race secretary and was on the board at one time.

Racing is a boon to his community, he believes, and he hopes it doesn’t die. “I hate to see it leave. I think it brings a lot of people to town, a lot of business. That’s why they were started.” F

A recent ruling by the Supreme Court legalizing sports betting may have come just in time to save some small horse racetracks like the one in Ft. Pierre, South Dakota.

According to Shane Kramme, the new manager of the Ft. Pierre Racetrack, the track has struggled financially the past few years. He expects that sports betting will bring in substantial tax revenue – enough, he hopes, to keep his favorite sport alive.

Some worried that they wouldn’t see horses on the track in 2018, but the races were held for the 70th consecutive year the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May in the small cowtown located directly across the Missouri River from the state capital of Pierre.

The South Dakota Horsemen’s Association, a group of Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse enthusiasts, put up $15,000 to the Verendrye Benevolent Association, the non-profit that hosts the races, to keep the races alive this year.

“In general there is good support for racing. There is just that same old tug of war for funds between the state fair, the race track and other activities. I hope they can find a way for us, it’s kind of a South Dakota tradition. All the states around us have found a way forward.”Shane Kramme, Ft. Pierre Racetrack manager

But that was a one-time deal, said Kramme. The money just isn’t there. Kramme said both the Ft. Pierre and Aberdeen horse racetracks depend on taxes collected from simulcast sites to help cover their expenses. Because one of the simulcast sites has filed for bankruptcy, the funding going forward will be greatly reduced. This year they each received about $180,000, and next year they expect to receive only about $100,000 to split between the two tracks.

The Ft. Pierre track charges a $1 per person entry fee, to help ensure families can afford to visit and enjoy the sport. Kramme said the community raised about $30,000 to support the races, but “the community can only do so much.”

Kramme said decades ago money was borrowed from the then-wealthy horse-racing fund to prop up the state fair. He has no problem with helping the state fair, but Kramme said that nearly $1 million was never paid back, and with horse-racing revenues in decline the last few years, his group could use that money back, or at least some help from sports betting revenues. “People like my grandfather and Joe Thorn and many great horseman thought they had secured the future of horse racing in South Dakota. They had worked hard, there was money flowing into the fund.” But the traditional funding source is not sufficient anymore, and he’s hoping sports betting is the savior for his favorite sport.

If Kramme and his fellow horse racing advocates can convince the South Dakota Commission on Gaming – a governor-appointed board of five who oversees gambling in their state – to support horse racing with sports betting funds, perhaps the track will remain open. Kramme is thinking that sports betting done in South Dakota could be taxed at a rate of two percent to help support horse racing.

The Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that a 1992 law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, that prohibited states from authorizing sports gambling, is unconstitutional. Now South Dakota will have to amend its constitution in order to legalize sports betting outside of Deadwood.

“This is a new thing. I’m sure they are writing the bill as we speak.”

Jeff Monroe, a Republican Senator from Pierre, verified that the state’s constitution does not currently allow for sports betting. The deadline for including initiatives on the November, 2018, ballot has already closed, so it will be 2020 before the constitutional amendment can be voted on. Monroe explained that a proposed constitutional amendment must be filed at least a year before the upcoming election, so sports betting enthusiasts will need to gather the proper number of signatures and file the ballot initiative a year before the 2020 election.

Since sports betting likely won’t become a potential revenue stream for the race track until 2020 or later, Monroe hopes the legislature can help keep the track open in the meantime.

“In general there is good support for racing. There is just that same old tug of war for funds between the state fair, the race track, and other activities,” he said.

“I hope they can find a way for us, it’s kind of a South Dakota tradition. All the states around us have found a way forward.” Kramme said often times the best horses race in the surrounding states because the purses are bigger than those offered by Ft. Pierre or Aberdeen.

“Even if we can get the funding, it will take years to rebuild the South Dakota bred program (a race specifically for South Dakota bred horses).” But Kramme is willing to stick with it. “Aberdeen and Ft. Pierre have to stand together. We are the only ones left.”

“I would like to tell everyone to contact their representatives and tell them you don’t want to see horseracing die in South Dakota. This is an ag issue. I’m a rancher myself. I believe agriculture will support this.”

In order to keep the Ft. Pierre track alive, Kramme believes they may have to change their strategy a bit and try to draw in some older horses. “I think we’ll have to find out niche in the market and maybe draw in some of those other horses so we can get back on our feet. Maybe we can pull in some more mature horses not necessarily South Dakota bred at this point, to keep the races going. Some of the horses that come here aren’t necessarily competitive at a larger track. We welcome them; that’s horse racing.”

He hopes eventually the South Dakota bred race will be able to offer a big enough purse to encourage more South Dakota breeders to think “racing.”

“My granddad stood a stud horse, two or three of them and we bred a lot of horses back in the 80s when it was going good. It will take years and more money to get it back there again.”