Two Minnesota poker rooms re-open after 3 weeks

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On June 30 I was playing poker at Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus, Minn.The room was fairly busy and everyone was counting down the hours until midnight.This wasn’t because some new promotion was about to begin. For the first time since the cardroom opened it would be forced to shut its doors for an undetermined amount of time.As the clock neared midnight the manager announced to the dealers that there were three hands left to play.There was talk of everyone going in blind for $60 preflop on the last hand, but play ended uneventfully and everyone racked up their chips.

More than 100 people stood in line to cash out as the staff rolled out the large cages to pack up the chips from the poker tables and table games.I overheard people talking about heading to Grand Casino Hinckley after cashing out, others discussed what to do over the weekend if the cardroom was still closed. The reality of the situation became evident when I read the announcement taped to the front door as I left: The cardroom, which normally only closes for 20 hours a year over the Christmas holiday, would be closed during the Minnesota government shutdown.

The Minnesota Racing Commission is the government agency that regulates Canterbury Park and Running Aces Harness Park.When the laws were expanded to allow cardrooms in 1999, the MRC expanded its role to regulate the cardrooms.The cardroom at Canterbury Park opened in April 2000, followed by the cardroom at Running Aces in June 2008.

The shutdown occurred because Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature were unable come to an agreement over the state’s operating budget.

All nonessential services are suspended until a budget can be passed.The MRC was categorized as nonessential and therefore was forced to close.

Both racetracks issued paperwork to appeal the ruling that forced the MRC to stop operations.According to the Star Tribune, attorneys argued the tracks should be allowed to stay open because the MRC is fully funded by the racing industry and all fees have been paid to cover services through July.According to a Canterbury Park news release, Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin issued a ruling, denying Canterbury’s request the MRC be allowed to continue operations during the state’s shutdown.

“(Running Aces’) attorneys coupled with Canterbury’s attorneys submitted another (appeal,)” Running Aces poker manager Gregg Barktu said. “Judge Gearin last time looked at our appeal and did not rule favorably for us.(The attorneys) think that perhaps she misunderstood because the Minnesota Zoo was able to reopen with a similar situation that we’re in. It was going to be submitted to another court to go to another judge, but that isn’t possible. So it was submitted again (July 6) to the same judge with a very (detailed) explanation of how much money we pay to the MRC, how that money is spent and how even though they are a state agency they are completely funded by us and Canterbury.So there’s really no reason (the MRC) shouldn’t be allowed to reopen.”

News releases issued by the racetracks indicate more than 1,600 people will be without work while they are closed.And, according to the Forest Lake Times, Running Aces is losing $100,000 in daily revenue, while still paying $30,000 each day for essential functions.So it’s easy to see why there is much frustration that these private businesses were forced to halt operations.

The tracks are not idle during the shutdown.The stables are housing horses and Running Aces is even modifying its cardroom, removing the sunken table used for tournament final tables or high-stakes cash games.

“We have the ability to put four poker tables over in that area,” Barktu said.“We are going to have more poker tables than we previously had.Now we will be back to 25.”

Here’s another issue: Minnesota law states cardrooms can’t operate unless the licensee has conducted at least 50 days of live racing within the past 12 months or during the preceding calendar year. The shutdown will require the tracks to reschedule some race days to keep the cardrooms open.

Said Barktu: “The idea would be to add those race days on the end of this season.It gets tricky because the longer this goes, the more horsemen will end up leaving.So then the fields become shorter. Then the question is how many races do we have to run a day?How many horses have to be in them to be considered official?Hopefully this is resolved in a week or less then we can add those race days on the end of this season.Otherwise, if this is a prolonged (shutdown), next season would start much earlier in the spring.”

Of course poker is available at the Native American casinos. One manager at Grand Casino Hinckley said attendance at the room was slowly increasing as the shutdown continued. The most noticeable increase was in tournament entries. I noticed a few Running Aces patrons playing $2-10 spread limit hold’em in Hinckley.

UPDATE: At press time, all budget bills were signed on July 20, ending the longest shutdown in Minnesota history. Canterbury Park and Running Aces were allowed to reopen July 21.

— John Somsky is the Ante Up Ambassador for Minnesota. You can email him at john.somsky@gmail.com.