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Champaign fair to build $200K stable to lure rebounding horse racing

Champaign County Fair officials plan to build a roughly $200,000 stable near the fairgrounds race track to capitalize on the recovery of harness racing in Ohio and Urbana’s location between three new racinos.

Along with stable fees, the 30-stall stable in Urbana could bring more jobs related to the racing industry, including trainers, groomers and additional revenue as breeders purchase straw, grain, trucks and other items from Champaign County companies, said Randy Leopard, who has managed races at the fair for 20 years.

“We look at it like an economic development project,” Leopard said.

Harness racing was a dying industry in Ohio just a few years ago, but revenue from video lottery terminals has boosted purses, drawing breeders back to the state. It has a 125-year history in Ohio and horse racing overall adds about $900 million a year to the state’s economy, including 25,000 jobs, according to the American Horse Council.

The Champaign County Fairgrounds is located within about an hour from Scioto Downs in Columbus, Miami Valley Gaming in Lebanon and Hollywood Gaming at Dayton Raceway, which is expected to open later this month.

None of those facilities have space to house horses overnight, Leopard said, meaning Champaign County could draw that business from across the region.

The Champaign County Fairgrounds already operates five race horse barns, but those facilities are filled.

The fair board is seeking bids for the project by Sept. 2, and construction could begin later this fall. The project will be paid for through a loan.

“It’s big to us,” Leopard said. “We have a rich tradition here and we want to continue that.”

The project likely wouldn’t have happened just a few years ago, said Jerry Knappenberger, general manager of the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association.

The sport in Ohio was on life support and horse breeders were fleeing, Knappenberger said, mostly because states like Indiana and Pennsylvania permitted electronic slot machines at tracks while Ohio did not.

Revenue from the lottery machines boosted the purses in those states, and the business followed. In some cases, purses in those states were four or five times as large as in Ohio.

That began to turn around when Ohio permitted the VLTs, Knappenberger said.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of the people that have matriculated to the other states are coming home and a lot of people that got out of the business are getting back in,” he said. “We’re going to have more horses and more racing days and therefore the fairs will benefit.”

Just Like Mikey, a horse that won the third race at the Champaign County Fair on Tuesday night, was an example of that, said Matt Rowe, a Champaign County man who raises about 30 horses on a roughly 100-acre farm near Urbana.

Rowe’s winning horse was bred in Pennsylvania so it could compete in higher-purse races in that state. Now, he said, more breeders are returning to Ohio.

“The horse industry in Ohio is huge,” Rowe said.

A portion of the revenue from the VLTs has been set aside the past two years to support operations at county fairs. About $2 million was distributed among the fairs this year.

Champaign County received $28,740, while Montgomery County received the maximum of $29,540. Clark County doesn’t conduct a racing program and received only $1,300.

In 2013, fairs that offered racing received $15,100 while non-racing fairs received $700, according to information from the Ohio State Racing Commission.

The state is also recovering more quickly because Ohio allows betting at most county fairs, while its neighbors don’t, Leopard said. A typical fair week brings in about $80,000 in bets, with the fairgrounds keeping about 10 percent. Much of the rest is returned to the state racing commission to support races statewide.

The Champaign County Fairgrounds was packed for Tuesday’s harness races. Dominic Fulco, of North Lewisburg, said he tries to make it to the races once a year.

“I usually break about even,” he said. “If you get away even, you’ve had a good day.”

Nate Smith, of Urbana, said he began betting with friends several years ago and won $400 last year.

“It’s a thrill,” Smith said. “Especially when you’ve got two horses neck and neck. That’s the best part.”

Several counties quit offering the races when the industry was struggling, but Leopard said he’s glad Champaign County fought to keep it going.

“We stuck it out through the lean times, now we’re going to benefit during the good times,” Leopard said.

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