Racing-license ‘debate’ suggested; Input from industry, public eyed to determine if N.M. needs sixth racino

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Before the New Mexico Racing Commission considers how to handle the state’s sixth and final horseracing license being sought by Raton and other communities, the commission might first talk about whether a sixth racino is needed or wanted by the state’s horseracing industry.

Racing Commission Chairman Rob Doughty has recently called for the commission to conduct “some open debate” regarding a potential sixth racino before any decision is made on whether to move forward with taking applications and awarding the sixth racing license. Doughty, an Albuquerque attorney, has not returned Range phone and e-mail messages left for him during the past week, but he has been quoted elsewhere recently on the matter of the sixth license.

The Racing Commission needs to discuss “what the industry wants, including whether the industry wants the sixth racino at this time,” he told the Albuquerque Journal in late May, adding that he was speaking as chairman and not for the other commission members.

Earlier, in an interview with New Mexico Horse Breeder, the monthly publication of the New Mexico Horse Breeders Association, Doughty said, “If the industry thinks it is (necessary to have a sixth racino) and the state can support a sixth racino, then we’ll move forward. The commission is neutral on this issue and is not going to push one way or another until there is a public debate on it. We’ll do what the industry feels is right.”

The Racing Commission is scheduled to meet June 27 in Albuquerque. Doughty told the Journal he might ask the commission at that time to schedule a public hearing on the matter to take place prior to the commission’s regular meeting in July. “After we take that public comment,” he said, “the commission could then decide whether to move forward with reopening the application process for a sixth racino.”

The boards of the New Mexico Horse Breeders Association and the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association are scheduled to hold their own meetings June 26 with discussion expected on the sixth racing license. Horse Breeders Association Executive Director Anna Fay Davis limited her comments Friday to The Range to say a discussion of if a sixth racino is wanted or necessary will be on the agenda for the organization to possibly formulate an official position.

Eric Mikkelson, president of the board of the Horsemen’s Association, said a similar discussion among that group’s board members was likely at its meeting June 26, but added “the general discussion is that it (a sixth racino) is wanted…We’re always looking for more racing opportunities and more dates.”

He said trainers and other horsemen generally are eager to compete at new facilities, and “people remember the glory days” in Raton when La Mesa Park — the state’s first formal horse track — was operating until it went bankrupt and closed in 1992.
Mikkelson said many horsemen were “disappointed” that the effort that began several years ago to place a racino in Raton failed.

Whether the Horsemen’s Association will support a specific site to land the sixth racing license if it is again put up for applications remains to be seen, Mikkelson said.

“I think everybody’s going to be a little scared of Raton after what happened last time,” he said, referring to conflict between Canadian developer Michael Moldenhauer — who planned a $50 million racino in south Raton — and the state racing and gaming boards when Moldenhauer failed to meet deadlines and accused state officials of mishandling the process that led to the loss of the racing and gaming licenses that were originally issued to him in 2009 for his racino that never got built. Moldenhauer appealed the loss of his licenses in court, with the New Mexico Supreme Court recently refusing to hear the final case and Moldenhauer not filing, within the required 15-day period, a motion for the court to reconsider, although his option to submit a motion and ask the court to accept it beyond the deadline remains open, according to the court clerk’s office.

That court decision renewed the hopes of those wanting to apply for the state’s sixth and final racing license that had been tied up in court the last couple of years. Raton city officials are trying to recruit new investors to back a Raton racino project while similar projects are eyed in or near Tucumcari and Lordsburg. In addition, the firm that operates a racino in Hobbs wants the license in order to then seek a second gaming license to expand the number of slot machines it can have at its existing racino. By state law, a racino operator must first obtain a racing license for each gaming license it seeks.

According to Mikkelson, the handles — the amount of money being made — by the state’s existing five racinos in or near Albuquerque, Farmington, Ruidoso, Hobbs, and Sunland Park have been declining. While it remains to be seen whether the state could support a sixth racino when the current five are seeing declining financial returns, he said horsemen would likely welcome a sixth racino because they are “always looking for a better place to go.”

Last week, a Houston-area “investment banker and business strategist” e-mailed a proposal to Raton city officials. Jim Ed Brown proposed to serve as a consultant to the city in order to put together an investment team to pursue the racino for Raton. Brown and city officials confirmed Brown had a brief connection to the most recent group of businessmen from New Mexico and Texas who had expressed interest in pursuing a Raton racino but who had recently backed away from the project.

Raton Economic/Community Development Director Christopher Reed said he initiated contact with Brown at the suggestion of one of the members of the former group of potential investors. Reed said he has also had conversations with other people in hopes of finding new investors to back a local racino project.