By CARL SMITH
Officials with the Mississippi Trotting Association say the Mississippi Horse Park could become a heavily used harness racing venue in the South if improvements are made to the facility’s track.
While racing officials have high hopes for the venue, horse park officials say a lack of interest in harness racing over the years and a tight budget could prevent the organization from tackling said changes.
Severe rains over the past two years and a lack of usage of the harness track have developed dangerous washes in the track’s foundation, horse park director Bricklee Miller said in an email. An annual inspection by Mississippi State University deemed the track unsafe until repairs are done.
In the same email, Miller said she received a $38,648.40 quote from Burns Dirt Company — the organization which originally built the track — to remove the area’s top surface, cut the track down to grade and repair the damaged foundation.
Mississippi Trotting Association President Eric Tinsey and Vice President Henry McDonald visited Oktibbeha County last week and told supervisors the track’s damaged foundation is preventing races from being held at the facility. Tinsey is seeking a meeting with horse park director Bricklee Miller to go over the damage and develop solutions to fund its repair.
“We have a lot of (racing) talent here in the state of Mississippi, and the horse park could be one of the best facilities in the South, let alone the state,” Tinsey said. “With cooperation from our specialists and people who know tracks, we can get this facility up and running.”
Tinsey asked the board if county road crews could assist in the repairs, and District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer said the county could potentially assist.
“I’ve been in this sport for about 23 years; there are so many tracks in a lot worse shape than the Mississippi Horse Park. The Neshoba County Fair track was in disrepair in the past. It took them a few weeks to repair, and now they’re racing their butts off. There are horses on top of horses there,” Tinsey said. “The county has equipment, road graders and the basic stuff we need. If the road manager has the expertise to grade roads you can drive on, I think he can handle a horse track.”
Miller said an additional $38,000 for repairs is not in her budget, but supplemental funds, if provided, could be used to make the fixes to the track. Due to a lack of interest in renting the park, Miller recommends the horse park utilize contracts and deposits for future races prior to investing in repairs.
Since 1999, Miller said the horse park’s harness racing track has only been rented four times. Those rentals brought in $1,400 in fees for the park. A grand re-opening was held in 2008 after $500,000 was spent to remove dirt from the center of the track to entice harness racers to rent the facility, she said in an email.
Tinsey said a lack of interest from the Mississippi Trotting Association could be due to a change of administration over the years with the organization. The mound of dirt was removed from the track so racing officials could have an unobstructed view of the whole racing surface, Tinsey said.
“(Since the administration change) we’ve made a lot of contact with tracks and racers across the south,” he said. “There’s a lot more enthusiasm, more licensed drivers and more folks are willing to travel throughout the country, let alone the state.”
“I have to be really smart and frugal with our budget. Everyone’s budget is hurting these days. I know (horse racing officials) are interested, but it just hasn’t been rented in the past,” Miller said. “We want to rent the facility because generating revenue is the goal of the facility. (If money is spent on repairs) we would need to know that they are going to book some races after we fix the track. We want these events because we built the track.”
If the track is repaired, Tinsey said his organization will be more than interested in returning to the facility.
“Our dream scenario is two days of intense racing while there’s a fair or rodeo or something going on at the horse park in conjunction with our event,” he said. “Racing is our second life, and that limestone track will bring racers. We’ll spend money in hotels, rent stalls, go out and eat, buy gas and go shopping.”
Jennifer Gregory, Greater Starkville Development Partnership vice president for tourism, said the horse park is an integral tourism partner for Oktibbeha County. Any extra events the organization holds has the potential to bring in more sales tax and 2 percent food and beverage tax for the area.
“Bricklee is very aggressive at securing multi-day events which bring in revenue for the community on such a regular basis throughout the year. All of her events are traditionally extremely successful,” Gregory said. “With her multi-day events, participators stay in hotels. (The horse park) has generated millions of dollars of economic impact over the years.”
If the horse park and individual racing associations can come to terms on a long-term racing schedule, Gregory said the GSDP would help promote the races as it does with other horse park events.
Since its opening, Miller said over 500 events have been held at the horse park, averaging 45 per year.
“We usually attract 36,000 to 40,000 visitors per year, and 90 percent of our business comes from 90 miles away,” Miller said. “The majority of weekends during the year, we’re doing things out at the horse park.”