09/07/2017 4:20PM

Gisser: Running Aces is a diamond in the Twin Cities

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Keith Gisser
Running Aces has been attracting people with various promotions.

While people continuously post on social media and pontificate in various print and online publications their thoughts on how to make the racetrack experience better, the easy answer is lying 1,214 miles northwest of the Meadowlands.

While the Hambletonian disqualification debacle made it abundantly clear that uniform rules won’t help our sport or our experience until we have uniform eyesight and uniform judges’ qualifications, there is a little track in Minnesota that is simply doing things better. Interference?  Did he? Didn’t he? Yes, probably. But the disagreements are so strong it proves the problem is not with the rule, but with its enforcement. Baseball has a described strike zone, but for every umpire it is a bit different. Now on to the main story.

For harness racing to thrive into the future, the sport could do a lot worse than look to Running Aces, the 5/8 mile track in Columbus, Minnesota, about half an hour north of the Twin Cities. The track has grown not by leaps and bounds, but in a steady upward spiral, fueled by a schedule of smart promotions, a good wagering menu and some pretty competitive racing. It is, quite simply, the most fun and friendly vibe I have ever experienced at a racetrack.

As trainer Gene Miller, now 77, says, “Every year I say it’s gonna’ be my last, but every year I come back. I really enjoy it here.” Miller, a veteran of the Billings amateur driving circuit, is a professional trainer, sporting a gaudy .349 UTRS this year and is winning at a 20% clip, which may have something to do with his positive outlook.

Purses are subsidized by poker and blackjack, but there are tables set up with a view of the track. Purses range from $3,000 to $13,000 for Minnesota-bred young horses, with the Open going for $10,000. Typically we see 7-9 horse fields . . . not always full, but full enough to make some money. On the weekend I was there, there were very few odds-on favorites.

What Running Aces has done extremely well is develop a regular clientele. Handle has grown from under $25,000 many nights when they first opened in 2008, to almost $200,000 a night. While it is certainly not a track the whales will play, the track continues to develop new patrons with a variety of promotions and special events, making it a destination attraction, and some of those folks take a shot on the horses.

Sunday is family night and I was there recently with my Handicapping Herpetologist program. But there was also a face painter and a kid’s coloring contest. The night before, I attended the track’s whiskey and cigar event. A $20 ticket included bourbon or rye whiskey from Wisconsin’s 45th Parallel Distillery, about 45 minutes away from the track, plus a cigar from St. Croix Cigar. Throw in a Running Aces bottle opener, a free program and a $10 Blackjack match play and you had a pretty good deal. I estimate 50 people attended the event, including a surprising number of women. In fact, it seems like Running Aces has found a way to reach female customers more effectively than any track I have been to recently.

Not a cigar smoker or a whiskey drinker? For a healthy option, you can catch your own trout dinner and have it prepared at the Trout Air Tavern for just $20. In addition to a number of dining options, including a recently added buffet, the trout stream receives action before and during the races and the space features happy hour from 3-5 p.m. and after the races until midnight, with live music on Saturdays. The Poker room offers special promos throughout each day and that draws crowds.

If you don’t want a sit-down dinner, Tuesday is dollar dog (and chip and soda) night, with $2 beer specials. Saturdays feature $4.00 local craft beers, wine and cocktails, and a $7.50 steak or prime rib sandwich. To the East of the grandstand is a grassy picnic type area that offers concession trailers and often hosts the special events. It is right behind the winner’s circle.

While in line to wager, I was stopped several times by novices asking advice on how or who to bet, so the newbies continue to flock to the track. While many of the horses at Running Aces are from Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, there is a cadre of California horsemen who make the track their summer home. The top of the driver standings include Nick Roland, Steve Wiseman, Dean Magee, Luke Plano and James Yoder. There is very little post bias with post five scoring at just under 17% and only the nine post showing a single digit win percentage. That means decent prices as money gets spread.

The typical card is about 10 races and is run in around three hours. On Saturday, while enjoying my rye and cigars, I did make an error, a classic for someone who does not attend as much live racing as he used to. I bet fairly heavily the first few races (the Daily Double is not offered, my only criticism) and quickly found myself in a hole before determining any track bias for the night. Fortunately, I was paying attention to the races and rebounded well, ending the evening with at a $50 profit on a total of about $200 wagered.

Sunday, I made just two win wagers, as we were swamped at the reptile display, cashing both for another $50 profit. I just wish I had more time to stay. If you are in the Twin Cities area, you need to check out this racetrack. It is fun and can be profitable. Now go cash. See you next month.