While the rest of the world debates Saturday's Kentucky Derby disqualification of Maximum Security, I'm worried about more important things, like how to bring horse racing back to Fort Pierre and Aberdeen in South Dakota.
This year, for the first time in 70 years, there will be no horses racing on the bullring track at the Stanley County Fairgrounds in Fort Pierre. That's the place, way back in 1968, where trainer Bill Mott saddled his first winner, a racemare named My Assets. He was just 15 years old.
Mott has won nearly 5,000 races since then, most recently the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby when stewards disqualified Maximum Security and had the roses draped on Country House.
Bill's father, veterinarian Tom Mott, spent $320 to buy that first racehorse for his son, cleared a pasture and built a small training track at his 30-acre clinic just outside of Mobridge, S.D.
Mott's Hall of Fame career sprouted its roots on that patch of ground. He soon found a mentor, a man named Ray Goehring who gave him a summer job overseeing a string of horses that raced at Fort Pierre, Aberdeen and Park Jefferson. If the latter name is familiar, that's because it's where another Hall of Famer, D. Wayne Lukas, got his start.
It was at Fort Pierre, Mott said last Saturday, where the Kentucky Derby first caught his attention in 1967.
“I was in front of a GMC van,” Mott said. “And I had the AM radio turned on. The van was owned by Keith Asmussen, who is the father of Cash and Steve and they're pretty well-known. I was 14 years old at the time, I believe.
“And I turned the radio on and I heard the call of Proud Clarion winning the Kentucky Derby. And at that point in time, I couldn't even imagine being at Churchill Downs or coming to Churchill Downs. I never thought I would get out of South Dakota to tell you the truth.”
Steve Asmussen, another future Hall of Fame trainer, was a year and a half old at the time. Cash Asmussen, who would win an Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice jockey and craft a successful international riding career, was five. Both are South Dakota natives.
Mott eventually went to work for Keith Asmussen, a Quarter Horse jockey and widely respected horseman, and that took him to tracks in neighboring states Colorado and Nebraska. The latter state is where he saw Jack Van Berg, the Hall of Famer for whom Mott would later work as an assistant before going out on his own in 1978.
After Mott graduated from high school, Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey wrote in the book, “Cigar: America's Horse,” that the South Dakota native was “anxious to dive headlong into the business. He went from Omaha to Detroit, where he cashed in on his Van Berg connection and went to work for Bob Irwin, a disciple of Jack Van Berg's legendary father, Marion.”
So many of those tracks in America's heartland are now gone: Park Jefferson in North Sioux City, S.D., closed in 1982; Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, Neb., in 1995; Detroit Race Course in Livonia, Mich., in 1998.
And now it looks as though Fort Pierre and Aberdeen may be finished. The non-profit associations that have operated the two race meetings voted not to run this year after grudgingly admitting they didn't have enough money to make a go of it.
“Seventy years of horse racing tradition came to a screeching halt,” said Shane Kramme, a member of the board of the Verendrye Benevolent Association that runs the Fort Pierre meeting.
Racing is in Kramme's blood. He's been involved in the industry his entire life and he said his grandfather bred and raced horses around the state.
But horse racing has been on a steady decline in recent years. Its last big supporter in the Governor's Mansion was George Mickelson, who helped establish a funding mechanism for the industry before his death in a 1993 plane crash. A few years later, Gov. Bill Janklow raided the fund, redirecting millions of dollars to other departments in state government.
The current governor, Kristi Noem, is no friend to the pari-mutuel industry and thinks of racing as part of the gambling world more than the agricultural one. It's a little late for those sentiments, however, as South Dakota has video lottery terminals throughout the state at every gas station and bar that wants them.
What it doesn't have are off-track betting outlets to wager on out-of-state horse races – other than one location in North Sioux City. South Dakotans can and do wager using advance deposit wagering companies, but none of the revenue on those bets stays in the state.
Kramme had hoped legislation would correct that. House Bill 1251 was designed to provide funding for horse racing by allocating a 5% source market fee from all ADW bets made by South Dakota residents. The bill passed the House 49-18 but was voted down in the Senate 15-19. In between the two votes, Churchill Downs Inc. in Louisville, Ky. – owner of the TwinSpires ADW – hired two lobbyists to oppose the bill.
It didn't help matters that officials from the South Dakota Department of Revenue that oversees horse racing spoke against the bill.
“The very department that should be working for us worked against us,” Kramme said. “It's sad, because the communities have supported racing, and the county fairs have been supportive. They want this.”
As a result, it's unlikely that future horsemen in the mold of Bill Mott will come from the Mount Rushmore State. The kind of person who, when asked what he will savor the most about winning the Kentucky Derby for the first time, said: “You know what I enjoy the most is just training the horses. I mean, that's what I live for. Get up in the morning, come out and see the horses.”
That's what South Dakota will lose when racing goes away.
“Some very successful people started here,” Kramme said. “They had the opportunity to plant their seeds and nurture them, then move on if they wanted to. Young people now won't have that opportunity.”
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