By CARL SMITH
Mississippi Horse Park Director Bricklee Miller says a local engineer is currently developing plans to repair the facility’s damaged harness racing track, but funding is needed to go forward on the project.
Once repair plans and cost estimates are finalized, Miller said she will approach the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors about funding options.
In May, representatives from the Mississippi Trotting Association said the facility could become one of the most-used racing venues in the South if repairs are made; however, Miller said Wednesday a lack of events in the past reflect a low desire to consistently use the facility.
Heavy rains over the past two years developed dangerous washes in the track’s foundation, Miller said in May. A previous annual inspection by Mississippi State University deemed the track unsafe until repairs are made.
Because of the Horse Park’s connection with MSU and potential liability issues with racers and their horses, Miller said her organization contacted County Engineer Clyde Pritchard to develop repair plans. In May, MTA President Eric Tinsey said members of his organization and the national trotting group could provide assistance with repairs, but Miller said repairs must be planned and approved by properly trained professionals.
Pritchard was unavailable for comment as of press time.
Burns Dirt Company — the organization which originally built the track — previously delivered a $38,648.40 quote to remove the track’s expensive top surface, cut the it down to grade and repair the foundation, Miller said in May.
“We’ll go back (to the board of supervisors) to see if they’re willing to pay for repairs or willing to fix it, but (repairs have) to be done by an engineer’s standards (due to liability issues). Safety is a huge concern at the Horse Park, and we certainly don’t want a rider or their animal hurt,” she said. “If we do not fix (the track) correctly, then we are setting ourselves up to be liable. I feel responsible for everyone who comes out to our facility.”
Even though Tinsey said he believes repairs would bring harness racers across the South to Oktibbeha County for weekend-long events, Miller said the track’s proven history of low usage does not guarantee a future rush of events.
The harness track was constructed in 1999 with funds provided by the state and rented on four different occasions through 2007. Between January 2007 and June 2008, MSU improved the track by moving and clearing a hill at the center of the track, an expense which totaled $500,000. A grand reopening was held June 20, 2008 to entice events back to the track, Miller said. On Sept. 27, 2008, a sanctioned horse race was cancelled after only six horses were entered.
Although $1.4 million was invested in the harness track, events have only provided $1,400 in returns.
In May, Tinsey said his organization would be more than interested in returning to the facility if repairs are made.
“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 in May. “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.”
In a presentation to the board of supervisors Monday, Miller said the Horse Park attracted 36,690 people to Oktibbeha County last year, almost 8 percent more than 2010’s previous attendance record. Miller credits events such as the MSU Bulldog Classic AQHA Show and the Lucky Dog Barrel Racing event as boosting this year’s attendance numbers.
Since 2002, the Horse Park’s 554 combined events have provided $24.27 million in economic impact. For every dollar invested, the local economy receives $12.20 back, Miller said an MSU study states.
“We’re very excited about our 8 percent increase and the way we’re trending,” Miller said. “The Horse Park events are continually bringing people in to the community, and that’s what our focus is. For over 40 weekends a year, we’re bringing people to Oktibbeha County.”