With nearly 60 years under his belt, you would be hard-pressed to find someone with more experience or passion for horse racing than Fort Pierre resident Herman Fennell Jr. But the dwindling opportunities for the sport in South Dakota has left Fennell with the looming concern the next race could be the end of a long tradition in the state.
On Tuesday, Fennell, 72, spent his morning at the Stanley County Fairgrounds preparing for the state’s last remaining horse race, beginning on Saturday at 8 a.m. in Fort Pierre and lasting two days.
“We need to bring racing back to Fort Pierre, South Dakota, and Aberdeen,” he said. “This would help jobs, all of the business around here, you know, motels, all your feed stores and just for the people. The people need something... Even if it’s a short month of races around here, it brings up the economy and gives some people something to look forward to in the spring. It really slowed this town down without the races. For racehorse people, it’s a stab in the heart.”
Fennell said that sport’s decline cuts into his livelihood and calling in life.
“I used to have 20 horses right here at the track when they had the races here,” he said. “That’s quite a bit of money coming in every month. You figure each horse I’m getting anywhere from $900 to $1,500 on a horse, and you multiply that times 20-30 days. That’s a big chunk to where I have to go work for somebody for $400-500 a week. You can’t make it on that. It hurt South Dakota people.”
Fennell said the thought that the last bastion of horse racing could permanently end after each race is a genuine concern.
“We’re lucky to have this,” he said. “Because I know three years ago when they said they weren’t going to run no more here, you know, that year when the races (would have come), it was a sad day. I’d be sitting at home and say, ‘You know right now I’d be going to the jockey room.’”
Fort Pierre resident Shane Kramme, 51, is the track manager for the Verendrye Benevolent Association, has been the starter, worked the gate, and lobbies in the state for horse racing.
Kramme said it might be hard for the public to understand the constant struggle to keep races going. He found that people hear the race is back on and assume they will continue.
“Quite frankly, every year there’s been this talk that racing was kind of on the decline in South Dakota, but yet then every year we had the races,” Kramme said. “So, people kind of get tired of hearing you cry wolf and say, ‘Well, you’re having the races again. I thought you couldn’t have them.’”
Kramme said South Dakota’s horse racing industry started having issues in the 1980s, but there was a bright spot when Gov. George S. Mickelson was elected.
“The money that’s in the two live racing accounts — the way South Dakota horse racing is funded, there’s the revolving account and the South Dakota-bred account — and so there’s one Simulcast site left in north Sioux City,” Kramme said. “So when you walk into that building and place a wager, 4.5 percent of that bet reverts back to those two live racing accounts to support live racing in South Dakota. And that was the mechanism that was set up in 1987 by George Mickelson and that administration.”
But Kramme said after Mickelson, support from the state’s governors waned, leading to the industry’s current state. He said he lobbied for the Horsemen’s Association to retrieve $120,000 of $5.85 million live-racing funds the state rediverted to other projects.
“We intended to use that money to race in 2019,” Kramme said about the $120,000, which came from a general spending bill. “Since we did not use that, the governor thought that it would be best if they take that money back. So, I went back to Legislature (in 2020) and fought and kept that $120,000 in the two accounts with some great help from Representative Tim Rounds at the time and some other lawmakers.”
Kramme said most of the money went towards last year’s race, and some is still funding the race on Saturday and Sunday.
“If we did not retrieve that money, I don’t think we’d be here today,” he said.
Kramme attributed the lack of support for live racing from Noem’s office to the misconception that it’s all about gambling. He also said people could support horse racing by talking to their elected officials and showing up for the events.
“They need to speak to their legislators and say they want to see South Dakota horse racing live on and have an open mind and see it for the agricultural industry that it is — it’s not a gambling industry,” he said. “You can come to the races. You don’t have to gamble. You can watch the races, eat some popcorn and drink a pop. You don’t have to drink beer. You don’t have to gamble. It can be a family event, and that’s what you see here a lot.”
Fennell got his first taste of horse racing in the sixth grade in Seguin, Texas. He remembered being a kid and seeing the jockeys while he was in town. That’s when he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“We’d ride across town on a buggy, and we happen to pass by a race track, and I seen them riders stand up on them horse going around the race track, and I thought that was fun,” he said. “ I said, ‘Man, I sure would like to do that.’ Being that my parents were real strict, I would sneak down to the race track and watch them horses go around the race track. And one day, a guy asked me if I wanted to do that, he said, ‘You’re pretty small.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, I sure would. I would love to do that.’”
That was Fennell’s break. He spent a couple of years helping out at the track and learning to ride. Then at 13, he won a few races over the next couple of years. When he turned 16, Fennell received his professional licensing, sparking a career lasting more than five decades and counting.
Fennell views horse racing’s decline in South Dakota as potentially taking such opportunities away from today’s youth, who might not see a future in the sport amid the lack of racing opportunities.
It was a sentiment shared by Kramme, who said he hadn’t missed a horse race in the city since he was three years old.
“My granddad was heavily involved. We had horses,” he said. “But when I really became involved in the track management side of it, South Dakota horse racing was pretty much in crisis mode.”
Kramme joined the Verendrye board in 2017 and found he didn’t fully understand the problems horse racing faced at first. He said his first year, the board voted not to hold a race. But he was able to secure a $15,000 donation, which led to a second vote and a return of the race.
“There were some other hurdles we had to clear with the state. I got them all taken care of, and we were allowed to race in 2018,” Kramme said. “And so we did.”
While the race carried on in 2018, the following year’s didn’t. Kramme said it was more weather related along with some funding issues.
He found it’s increasingly difficult to compete with surrounding states to attract entries without support from the state Legislature and Gov. Kristi Noem’s office.
Noem’s office didn’t respond to the Capital Journal’s request for comment on South Dakota horse racing.
Kramme said it’s been difficult trying to carve out a piece of the industry, and now he is focusing on keeping the lights on. South Dakota horse racing’s decline also led to losing experienced horse trainers and owners, which Kramme said the state had a long tradition of producing.
“Unfortunately, when you start losing trainers and owners knowing that the money is not there, you lose your voice, you lose your swagger, you lose your influence,” he said. “And now you’re down to a few. The real unfortunate thing is it sends a signal to young people, ‘Hey if you intend on making a living, don’t look at South Dakota.’ That’s been the unfortunate part, the lack of young people that became involved because the lack of support.”
Fennell isn’t racing this year, he’s working as a groom, but he said he has his eye on next year. He said if he can win a quarter horse race at his age, he’ll hold the record for the oldest rider to win the event. He remembered growing up and hearing he wouldn’t make it as a jockey and found his career and a final record would show anything is possible.
“That’s a high you can get in any kind of sport — is do something that nobody has done,” Fennell said. “And that’s what I want to do. So all my grandkids can say their grandpa, my daughters, and my son can say my dad, ‘He was the oldest in history.’ It’s something great, and that’s all I want is that one little greatness.”
Fennell moved to South Dakota in 1994, but his ties to Fort Pierre’s horse races go much further. He first raced in Fort Pierre in 1968 at 17 years old — his most recent was in 2020.
“I was a kid, and it was new, and it was the first time I ever left Texas. And I had never seen weather like that,” Fennell said. “It was snowing — cold, cold, cold in April. I left Texas and it was 90 degrees, and I got here and it was in the 20s. I couldn’t believe they even had races that day.”
He said that the races have died down since then and it’s taken a toll on the sport over the years.
Despite the current issues and struggles to attract entries and keep purses enticing to owners, Fennell is confident Fort Pierre’s race on Saturday and Sunday will be a success.
“It’s going to be a crowd. I know it,” Fennell said. “I ain’t going to hope — it’s going to be a crowd. People are already sitting in town talking, ‘Races are this weekend.’ It’s ready to come. It’s going to be a crowd.”