Sun Downs set to kick off season Saturday

Tri-City Herald sports editorApril 20, 2012 

— Nancy Sorick knew there just had to be horse racing at Sun Downs this year.

“Truthfully, I just can’t visualize not having racing here,” said the track’s general manager. “Since the late 1960s it’s been here. I feel like we’re going to let the horsemen down if we don’t run.”

So despite some insurance issues, the six-day meet forges on, kicking off at the Kennewick track Saturday. First post is 1 p.m.

The meet will run each of the next three Saturdays and three Sundays — April 21, 22, 28, 29 and May 5 and 6.

This year’s meet almost didn’t happen.

Racing secretary Shorty Martin had to apply last October for any Stakes or Challenge races for this season.

“We had them all approved, but the (Washington State Horse Racing) commission doesn’t approve racing dates until February,” said Martin. Sun Downs got the dates. But that was about the same time that the track was hit with higher rates for jockey insurance.

In 2011, the Tri-City Horse Racing Association — which runs the meet, this being its 26th year doing so — paid about $4,000 a day for jockey insurance.

But because a number of riders around the country were getting hurt during meets, the insurance industry took another look and raised the prices.

Sun Downs was not immune to that in 2011. Martin said five riders were injured to varying degrees the last meet.

“And for each one of them it happened after the race was over,” Martin said. “Quarterhorses run into each other. You have new riders, new horses.”

So this year for Sun Downs, the cost for jockey insurance is $11,000 a day — a difference of $42,000 — and a potential deal-breaker. “We were already so far in that Nancy said ‘Well, let’s keep going,’” said Martin.

For her part, Sorick has done a good job over the years of setting aside any money made after the meet and putting it into a savings account for the TCHRA.

“One person — I don’t know if they want to be identified — donated part of the money we needed,” said Sorick. “But the lion’s share put in was from savings.”

And now, that savings account is pretty much wiped out.

Still, both Sorick and Martin are optimistic about this meet.

“If we have a meet like last year, we’ll be OK,” said Martin. “Our handle was up over last year by 25 percent. So if we can just be equal to last year’s meet, I’ll be happy.”

The average daily handle — what people wagered on the races — was $58,000, with $104,000 on Kentucky Derby day. The average handle in 2010 was $45,000.

“Having just six racing dates (in 2011) helped (as opposed to 10 dates in 2010), and people came from Walla Walla, Dayton, and Waitsburg, where they didn’t have races last year,” said Martin. “We even did that last year racing on both Easter and Mother’s Day.”

And there’s a lot going for the track this year:

-- The only other track in the Northwest running right now is Emerald Downs in Auburn. Les Bois Park in Boise starts May 2. So the horse count here will be up.

-- Martin has the big races back.

The $30,000 Pot O’Gold Futurity, sponsored by the Northern Quarterhorse Association, returns.

So does the Meriel Distaff Challenge, which will have a $25,000 to $30,000 purse.

Sheza Bad Habit, which won that race in 2010 and finished second in it last year, qualified for the $125,000 final last fall in Los Alamitos and won it.

Finally, the Pfizer Starters Allowance Challenge for $20,000 will be held again.

-- The track will also provide bettors a chance to wager on the Kentucky Derby on May 5.

Both Sorick and Martin will wait until the meet is over to evaluate what the next step is — if there is a next step.

“I think it’s going to be a good meet,” Sorick said. “I know the fans will be there. And the horse people. These people are dedicated to us. I put something in the racing program about that, saying ‘Thanks for being part of our horse racing family.’”

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