In less than 23 years, Hoosier Park (shown circa 2009) has gone from a cornfield to the host site of the 2017 Breeders Crown | Dave Landry

From cornfield to Crown

October 22, 2017

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How a dream of bringing world-class horse racing to Indiana via the Breeders Crown came together in just 23 years thanks to an investment by both the horsepeople and Hoosier Park in the future of the industry in the state.

by James Platz

Next weekend, the eyes of the racing world will be focused on Hoosier Park Racing & Casino as the track plays host to 12 Breeders Crown finals. In the midst of the preparation, Rick Moore, Hoosier Park’s vice president and general manager of racing, reflected on the journey the Anderson, IN facility has taken on the way to hosting the sport’s championship event.

Born out of a cornfield in central Indiana, Hoosier Park has transformed from an upstart to one of the industry’s success stories in less than 25 years.

“I remember our first season in 1994. We were offering $27,000 a day in purses and filling six races a night,” Moore said. “I never imagined there could be a Breeders Crown event at Hoosier Park. I think that’s a testimony to everyone involved, everyone working together and pulling in the same direction.”

Ernie Gaskin remembers those early days, as well. In Indiana’s pari-mutuel infancy, Gaskin was an appointee to the state’s breed development committee. Working with fellow appointees Nat Hill and Hank Blackwell, the men were charged with building the framework to a program that would improve the quality of the Indiana-sired and bred product. In that role, Gaskin also found himself serving as a salesman for the program, asking legislators to continue funding to the racing industry as the foundation was built for future success.

“Getting the Breeders Crown awarded to us here and having some Indiana bred horses that can compete at that level is what we tried to sell to the politicians and the government of Indiana,” Gaskin said. “We tried to sell that we can do that, and we did it, in 23 years, which is nothing shy of a miracle. You’ve got Hannelore Hanover, Wiggle It Jiggleit; you know the names out there, Indiana bred horses. That is where we wanted to go.”

The opportunity to play host to the Breeders Crown came at a cost, and a hefty one at that. The price tag: $900,000. Hoosier Park kicked in $400,000 and the horsemen supplied the remaining $500,000 from their purse account. That can be viewed as a significant hit directly to horsemen’s pocketbooks, but Indiana had one advantage: time.

Joe Putnam, a trainer and Indiana Standardbred Association director, explained that the three-year lead time helped with spreading the “pain” over multiple years.

“There was a little bit of skepticism at first, but we had the opportunity to bring the Super Bowl of harness racing to our home track for the first time ever,” he said. “We knew three years in advance so that we could spread that $500,000 out over a couple of seasons of racing. It was a very minimal impact on the purses. For what we’re going to get in return, we felt like it was a good investment.”

Any decision that leads to a reduction of purses, no matter how small, can be met with opposition. Putnam said that communicating with the horsemen helped to alleviate some of that skepticism. Still, there may be some that still object to the use of purse account funds to help bankroll the Breeders Crown. Gaskin insists that with a big picture view, the investment was necessary, and will pay dividends.

“That’s probably not making some guys happy, but that’s where the vehicle has to go to succeed. It just has to go that direction to succeed,” he said. “We all had to pay a little bit for the Breeders Crown. Anybody that raced a horse this summer at Hoosier Park helped pay a little bit because of the purses, because of the money. I hope most people get the big picture. I know there are some that don’t, there are some that didn’t agree with it from the get-go. But it’s what we had to do.”

Whether you race at Hoosier Park often, or will make your first starts at the Anderson facility during next weekend’s Breeders Crown finals, bringing the championships to the Hoosier State is about more than just numbers. According to Jessica Barnes, director of standardbred racing and breed development for the Indiana Horse Racing Commission, it’s an opportunity to showcase the strength of Indiana’s racing and breeding product. It’s also a chance to show what makes Indiana’s racing industry special.

“It gives us an opportunity to showcase all that Indiana has to offer, and I believe this is very important to our program. By hosting the Breeders Crown, it gives us an opportunity to show what our facts and figures can’t; that Indiana is a great place to race,” Barnes said. “Anyone taking part in this year’s Breeders Crown has an opportunity to experience true Hoosier hospitality and see firsthand how much our state supports horse racing.”

Putnam agrees. He has competed in Indiana since 1995, and he’s seen the transformation of the industry as it has grown and developed. He believes that Hoosier Park’s facilities are on par with the best in the sport, and many will leave next weekend with a favorable view of the track and Indiana.

“A lot of new people are going to see the place and experience the racing facility,” he said. “I think everyone will be impressed. Everything is first class and they (Hoosier Park management) are going to make this a special event.”

Next weekend, harness racing’s best will converge on Hoosier Park. Regardless of the outcome on the racetrack, Indiana is the big winner. And that victory can be attributed to the hard work of many focused on elevating the state’s racing profile.

“To get to this level in this short of time, it’s been a dream come true for Indiana,” Gaskin said. “We’re gaining respect all the time.”

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