Politics and Government

Running Aces suit alleges tribal casinos in Minnesota are running illegal games

Horse racing
Besides its racetrack, Running Aces operates a casino at its facility just north of the Twin Cities metro. They say they are struggling to expand.
David Brewster | Star Tribune via AP

One of Minnesota’s two horse racing tracks on Tuesday filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against the executives who oversee three tribal casinos. Running Aces, which operates a harness track in Columbus, alleges that the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the Prairie Island Indian Community are operating card games in violation of state and federal gambling laws.

Running Aces alleges that Grand Casino Hinckley and Grand Casino Mille Lacs, which are owned by the Mille Lacs Band, and Treasure Island Resort & Casino in Welch, which Prairie Island owns, have “vastly expanded their own gaming operations in blatant disregard of clear criminal prohibitions.” 

Running Aces claims that the three casinos are operating card games that are out of compliance with compacts between the state of Minnesota and the tribes in violation of both state law and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the federal statute that’s governed tribal gaming for 35 years. 

Running Aces alleges that since 2020, the Mille Lacs Band casinos have been offering Three Card Poker and Ultimate Texas Hold ‘Em, games that are not covered by their tribal-state gaming compacts. 

The suit adds that Treasure Island was doing the same thing until its compact was amended last fall to include card games other than blackjack. 

Besides its racetrack, Running Aces operates a casino at its facility just north of the Twin Cities metro, and it says the much larger tribal casinos are fighting to preserve their dominance by resisting Running Aces’ efforts to expand table games. 

The lawsuit was filed under the federal RICO Act, which is best known for federal criminal cases involving gangs, but plaintiff’s attorneys also cite the law as a basis for civil lawsuits that have nothing to do with organized crime. 

Jeffrey E. Grell, a RICO attorney who’s taught classes on the topic at the University of Minnesota Law School, said in a phone interview with MPR News Tuesday that business-related RICO litigation typically alleges claims of fraud.

Grell said in this instance, Running Aces argues only that the tribal casinos’ actions are resulting in unfair competitive advantages. To prevail on a RICO claim, Grell said that Running Aces must prove that the tribes’ alleged illegal activity directly caused the track to lose customers. 

“For a damage analysis, you would have to show that a concrete monetary value was lost because of this alleged illegal gaming that was going on at Grand Casinos and Prairie Island.”

Grell said that proving that chain of causation will likely be difficult for Running Aces in part because gamblers have many reasons, not just the availability of certain card games, for picking one casino over another.

“A gambler might just like one casino more than the other,” Grell said. “The geographic location may be more convenient. The buffet might be cheaper.”

A spokesperson for Prairie Island wrote in an email to MPR News that the tribe just learned of the lawsuit, so they’re not commenting. Officials with the Mille Lacs Band have not responded to requests for comment. Neither defendant has filed a legal response to the lawsuit.

The litigation comes as Running Aces and Canterbury Park, Minnesota’s other horse track, are pushing back against a proposal in the DFL-led Legislature to legalize sports betting. The tracks say the measure threatens their ability to keep operating. 

The bill would allow tribes to partner exclusively with sports betting companies such as DraftKings and would offer stipends to the horse tracks. But the tracks argue that the stipends are too low. Running Aces and Canterbury Park also trying to beat back legislative proposals that would outlaw a new form of horse race betting that recently got regulatory approval.