Minnesota's racino legislation is critical to the fate of Hastings thoroughbred farmFor years, Minnesotans and politicians have been debating whether or not to allow racinos in the state. There have been several arguments on both sides of the matter, but one Hastings man says that without one, his business will either die or have to move out of the state.
By: Katrina Styx, The Hastings Star-Gazette
For years, Minnesotans and politicians have been debating whether or not to allow racinos in the state. There have been several arguments on both sides of the matter, but one Hastings man says that without one, his business will either die or have to move out of the state.
Dave Astar owns Astar Thoroughbreds, a thoroughbred farm just north of Hastings. After working for United Health Group and moving all over the country, he and his wife Debbie decided to settle in Minnesota, at least until their children graduated high school. Astar had always been interested in horses and horse racing.
“To me it’s a sport and it’s entertainment, too, to a lot of people, but the horses themselves are tremendous athletes,” he said. “They’re 1,000 pounds of muscle and bone.”
Besides that, he loves horses’ personalities.
The gambling aspect of horse racing appealed to him as well.
“Everything is a risk or reward in life,” he explained.
“I like winning, I like gambling, I like horses – it’s a perfect fit.”
When Astar lived in Kentucky, often called the heart of horse country, he learned all about the business of horse racing. When he came to Minnesota, he decided to turn his dream into reality and jumped into the horse racing world.
“On my bucket list was owning a race horse,” he said.
It was 2005 when he made his serious entry to racing. He started by racing claims horses, which allowed him to get horses on the track right away. Then he started buying yearlings and training them for racing as 2- and 3-year-olds. It wasn’t long before he started his own breeding operation. And it’s been a good run, too.
“We’ve had a lot of luck,” Astar said.
One horse, The KB Kid, showed huge promise, winning four straight races as a 2-year-old here in Minnesota and earning the Minnesota 2-year-old of the year award in 2005. Astar owned another 2-year-old, Timetobook, who earned the same award in Iowa the same year. Other Astar horses have won the Northern Lights Futurity and the Minnesota Distaff Classic Championship. The stable has had more than 60 wins since it started, six stakes winners and more than 200 horses earning money on the track.
Industry in decline
But all that seems to be coming to a close for Astar. At the farm’s peak, Astar Thoroughbreds was home to 35 racehorses. Today he owns 14, and plans to sell more.
“We’ll probably be down to five horses by the end of the year,” he said.
It’s not because he wants to retire. The problem is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult – almost impossible, even – to recoup the cost of raising and training a racehorse in this state, he said.
To paint the picture, he described how horses win money at racing. Each race has a purse, or prize money, which is distributed among the top racers. The winning horse brings home about 60 percent of the total purse, while second-, third- and fourth-place horses earn 20, 10 and 5 percent of the purse. But before a horse can race, owners have to invest $17,000 to $18,000 over three years in breeding, raising, preparing and training. In Minnesota, purses for a horse’s first race are about $18,500. Horses have to not only race in, but win at least two or three races in their first year just to break even.
“A lot of people get into racing not to make a lot of money, but not to lose fortunes,” Astar said. “Purses are so low in Minnesota that people are losing fortunes.”
A decline in the horse racing industry doesn’t just affect racehorse owners.
“It’s like a spider web of impacts,” Astar said.
At his own farm, money gets spread out across several other industries. He sends his broodmares to a third-generation family breeder in Cambridge so his foals are bred and born by professionals.
“I think about those people when I think about racing disappearing,” he said.
Locally, he needs veterinarians to sure his horses’ health, farriers to keep their hooves trimmed, trainers, grooms at the racetrack, tack and feed.
“I buy all my feed and grain from Fluegel’s,” he said.
That doesn’t even include the contractor work he had done to install fences and build his barn, or the equipment he had to buy to manage the farm.
The one thing that could turn Minnesota horse racing around, Astar said, is allowing racinos. Adding traditional casinos to race tracks would increase revenue, which would increase purses as well as contribute to other state projects.
Other Midwest states have proven that racinos work. A 2011 study conducted by Purdue University showed that Indiana had a $2.6 billion economic impact and added about 20,000 jobs after it allowed racinos in its legislation. Another study on the Pennsylvania racing industry conducted by Tripp Umbach showed that state had a $4.6 billion impact and 64,000 new jobs thanks to racino legislation.
Meanwhile, Minnesota continues to delay the issue, and Astar and other horse racers and breeders are being forced to choose between two drastic decisions: give up their farms or move them to another state that’s more hospitable to their business.
Looking out into his own pastures, Astar pointed out one of his colts who might have had a successful racing career, but Astar’s decided not to put him through training. Another of his horses is having a successful run in New Orleans, and he’s considering not bringing her back to Minnesota, he said.