Sun Downs begins its final run, perhaps

By Jeff Morrow, Herald sports editor April 22, 2011 

KENNEWICK -- If Cliff Schellinger had his way, there would always be horse racing at Sun Downs.

But things aren't in his control anymore.

A smaller track like Sun Downs -- called a Class C race site -- is at the mercy of what the Washington State Horse Racing Commission can give it.

And that commission is at the mercy of what Emerald Downs, the state's big track in Auburn, brings in on revenues. The track hands over a percentage of those revenues to the commission, which then distributes that to tracks in Kennewick, Dayton, Waitsburg and Walla Walla.

So when the commission said in February that the Kennewick track was only getting six days for its 2011 meet, rather than the customary 10, Schellinger -- a member of the Tri-City Horse Racing Association -- was tickled to have any days at all.

"This is what we want to do," he said at a media gathering Thursday night at the track. "But it's anybody's guess if we'll be here next year."

It all depends on if the state commission can find that money to help the track operate.

Meanwhile the TCHRA is treating this meet -- which begins Saturday -- as a possible swan song.

It's the group's 25th year of operating at the track, and racing secretary Shorty Martin has put together a card that condenses 10 days of racing into six.

Those six days are Saturday, Sunday, April 30, May 1, 7 and 8. First post each day is 1:30 p.m.

"We'll have three quarterhorse Challenge races," Martin said. "And we have 36 horses entered in the Pot O' Gold trials, which will run this Sunday.

"One thing that was good was that there are no other trials, so we can get everything else in."

Martin said there will be nine races on Saturday, and 10 more on Sunday.

Tacoma's Bob Lopez, executive secretary of the commision, was in attendance Thursday. He said commission members feel terrible about having to cut back any racing. But they had no choice.

"Since 2007, revenues at Emerald Downs have been down a cumulative 32 percent," he said. "That's one of the reasons we can't help (the small tracks) anymore. People don't have that extra money to gamble with anymore."

Lopez said the commission was at a point not to award any dates to the Class C tracks.

"But we still had $98,000 and we don't want to give it back to Emerald Downs," Lopez said.

That $98,000 would help a Class C track or tracks operate for six dates. Schellinger was humbled when the Dayton and Waitsburg operators said those dates should all go to Kennewick.

But the TCHRA had to come up with a few things itself, such as paying $36,000 to self-insure for the six dates, furnishing people to run the photo finish and help on the backside of the track at the test barn.

"From the state, we get the purse money and they'll furnish the stewards," Schellinger said.

Lopez is hopeful that racing at Sun Downs will continue after this season.

"It would be sad to see it go," he said. "Now we've got to find the money. If Emerald Downs picks up, we could get more money."

Emerald Downs, which opened last week, has started the season off well.

"We watch (their handle) every day," Lopez said. "They had a wonderful weekend."

But he also said that while attendance was up, the handles went down a bit.

Schellinger and the TCHRA, meanwhile, are getting ready for this six-day meet, which begins Saturday.

"I'm gonna be happy if we get through these three weekends with no horses -- nobody -- getting hurt," Schellinger said. "We can handle the rest of it."

* Jeff Morrow: 509-582-1507; jmorrow@tricityherald.com.

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