He calls himself a “newbie” on the Missoula horse racing scene, but Chuck Leonard is learning fast. He’s had to if he’s going to help save it.
On Monday, the neuroscientist and physical therapy professor at the University of Montana will state his case, again, at the monthly meeting of the Missoula County Fairgrounds advisory committee.
“My message is going to be very simple,” Leonard said. “It’s going to be: I’m not asking you to do anything. All I’m asking you to do is not to screw up, not to put buildings in the middle of the track that destroy any chance of having racing in Missoula.”
Leonard won’t be the only one there making his case. The Western Montana Turf Club, long an advocate for racing in Missoula, is as alarmed as Leonard about the vibes it’s getting from the advisory council.
“And it’s not all just horse racing,” said Toni Hinton, a co-founder of the turf club. “I feel like what needs to change about this whole thing is it needs to become an agricultural venue again. It doesn’t need to be ice skating rinks and then accommodate the 4-H kids when they’re here for a week at the fair.”
Leonard has been around horses all his life, but got into race horses only recently. For the past couple of years, he’s sent two horses to tracks in Idaho.
Missoula has had just one two-day meet in the past five Augusts at the Western Montana Fair, in 2010, and won’t race again this year. Other tracks in Montana have struggled or shut down altogether.
Now the state’s racing mainstay, Yellowstone Downs in Billings, has closed shop for the summer. Officials there cited a lack of funding from the Board of Horse Racing, which recently found itself more than $600,000 in arrears after a disastrous experiment running the state’s simulcast operations.
Leonard said he’s kept an eye on the industry’s decline. But he didn’t play an active part in battling the trend until recently.
In May, the Missoula fairgrounds advisory committee revealed the results of an internal survey, and horse racing and the facilities it uses fared miserably on all counts.
Leonard said he was impressed with the quality of the survey.
“Whoever put it together had experience in doing surveys. They really broke it down into detail,” he said.
But he was shocked to read how low a priority racing was.
“It’s one of the most popular events at the fair, it brings in a lot of money not only bringing people into the fairgrounds but all the nonprofits that sell food always do better when there’s horse racing,” he said.
What’s more, it came at a time that “coincided exactly” with the revamping of the state racing board by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
“He pretty much fired the existing board that was ineffectual and made all types of bad decisions, and now he’s replaced it with one of our ex-state senators, Dale Mahlum, and others who have a lot of institutional knowledge about the equine industry and horse racing in particular,” Leonard said.
“They seem to have their house in order in a very quick fashion.”
The new board envisions a five-city racing circuit, “the way it was in the heyday, back when you did have a racing circuit and a very active breeding and racing culture in Montana,” Leonard said.
Missoula would be a lynchpin to the circuit.
The money might not be there to run next year, “but certainly within two years it will be,” he said.
All he asks is that Missoula County still has a track to run on when it is.
“Once you destroy your track, it’s millions of dollars to build another one,” Leonard said, “where if you just refurbish the one you have now and the backside we have now. … It’s going to cost money, but it’s apples and oranges to building a new track.”
Leonard first stated his case at the June meeting of the advisory panel.
“I assumed they didn’t have their finger on the pulse of what the Board of Horse Racing was up to and the governor’s office was up to,” he said. “So I was there to try to inform them of that.”
The committee tasked him to put together a business plan before the July 23 meeting to “show cost-benefit of a track and if there could be other users in the infield and things like that.”
So he set out, in conjunction with the Missoula turf club, to gather information and learn “who the interested parties are and what’s going on.”
“What I’ve come up with is that there is a whole lot of interest on a whole number of different levels, from the Native American community all the way up to the governor’s office,” he said.
The state racing board’s debt is the biggest hurdle, but the new board seems to be on track to resurrect the simulcast industry that live racing has become dependent on and to put together a plan to make horse racing viable again.
The Western Montana Turf Club, meanwhile, was meeting Saturday evening to finalize the business plan Leonard will present Monday to the advisory committee. He’s scheduled for midway through the 90-minute meeting that starts at 11:30 a.m. in the fairgrounds Floriculture building.
Leonard doesn’t share the doomsday sentiments of some racing fans in western Montana. Even Hinton admits she was ready to throw up her hands a few months ago.
“I’m guardedly optimistic,” Leonard said. “The reason I say that is I don’t think (the advisory committee members) have ever had it put in the perspective that it’s an economic issue for the state, which it clearly is. You’re talking a multi-multi-million dollar industry when you look at the breeding, the feed, the people who work the track, etc., etc., etc.”
He plans to share the results of a study commissioned by Schweitzer’s office a few years ago that outlined the economic impacts of racing to Montana.
“The other thing I think that weighs in our favor is, while they do have a master plan which excluded a track, there’s no money available to do anything tomorrow or next week or next month,” Leonard said. “This is all pretty much the planning phase right now.”
“If they were sitting on $8 million and had to spend it by the end of the fiscal year on the fairgrounds we might be in trouble. But since they’re not sitting on that kind of money, and they’re just in the planning and learning stages, I think the challenge to those of us who are involved in the industry is to educate them.”
Hinton wants the committee to hear the message from many voices.
The makeup of the commissioner-appointed advisory committee, 15 members strong until three recent resignations, has a variety of skill sets. But she noted that few of them have strong backgrounds in agriculture.
“I’m trying to encourage everybody to come and be involved, as many agricultural people as I can get,” Hinton said. “Agriculture is what the fair really is about, what it stands for, what we grew up with. And what they’re building is certainly not the fair.”
Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.