Delay in opening Sun Downs could result in job losses across S.E. Washington

JEFF MORROW HERALD SPORTS EDITORJanuary 29, 2014 

A delay in opening the Sun Downs facility for horse training at the Benton County Fairgrounds could result in jobs leaving the Tri-City region.

The 2013-14 racing season at Portland Meadows ended Sunday, and the competitors at that meet will have to make a decision in the next week on where to move their horses for training.

Nancy Sorick of the Tri-Cities Horse Racing Association hopes they can come to Kennewick and train at Sun Downs.

But Sun Downs isn't open yet, pending negotiations with the Benton Franklin Fair Association, which leases the fairgrounds from Benton County.

"Some of those trainers may go to Utah or Idaho," Sorick said. "We have to have that training center open. Otherwise, horse racing no longer runs in this area, and the whole quarter horse industry in the Northwest is dead."

Doug Moore, a member of the Washington State Horse Racing Commission, said more than 100 people in the region make horse racing their livelihood.

"Without horse racing here then they'd probably move out of the area," Moore said. "In the Tri-Cities, there are about 45 people licensed as grooms, horse trainers, et cetera. But when you include Walla Walla and Dayton, it's over 100 people."

The problem is trainers will move to facilities they know are open, and once they've settled in, it's too expensive to break down camp and move again.

That window of opportunity at Sun Downs is tightening.

"If the fair board and the Tri-Cities Horse Racing Association can't come to an agreement, then that's an economic impact on the Tri-Cities and horse racing in Southeastern Washington," Moore said.

"The commission thinks it's vital to keep quarter horse racing in Eastern Washington," Moore said. "It's been there for 50 years, and we've supported it."

Training horses for barrel racing for rodeos and 4-H competitions also could become a problem, Sorick said.

Lori Lancaster, executive director of the fair association, said the board has met with the horse racing association a few times already.

"We don't know if there is going to be a race meet," Lancaster said. "All they have to do is sign the lease. We just can't have the fair subsidizing some of the costs. We have offered them our marketing services for free. We could help them in different areas. But they have opted not to do that."

Shorty Martin, the longtime racing secretary at Sun Downs, has been hoping all along that things will get done in time for a meet this spring -- the final two weekends of April and the first weekend of May.

"People from California and many other states are calling us," said Cliff Schellinger, a member of the association. "They're out there waiting to see what happens."

"The crowds and the wagering will be there," Sorick said.

Martin and Sorick feel they'll be able to work things out with Lancaster and the board. Martin, in fact, will take a job as racing secretary for Les Bois Park in Boise this year, but part of his agreement was he wanted to help get Sun Downs up and running this season.

The horse racing association has asked for the American Quarter Horse Association futurity races Sun Downs has hosted the past few years, Martin said.

"The AQHA has all but approved those," Martin said. "Now somebody needs to open the track so the horsemen can run."

Martin hopes to get Paul George, another member of the state horse racing commission, and Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin together next week -- along with fair board members and the local horse racing association -- to come to an agreement, he said.

"They need to get the track open as quick as they can," Martin said.

The county approved Tuesday a lease agreement with the fair association for part of the county-owned fairgrounds, including the Sun Downs building, race track and horse barns.

Delvin would like to see a longer-term agreement between the fair board and the horse racing association, so that things aren't so contentious every year, he said.

"The county leases that area to the fair association," Delvin said. "My hope is that the fair association will be responsive to the horsemen association and work toward getting the facility open.

"Every year there seems to be issues," Delvin continued. "I don't know if it's worth taking the two parties, sitting them down and working things out to where we don't have to go through this every year."

Lancaster said the board is ready to meet with the horse racing association anytime.

"We are moving like they are going to get there (racing)," Lancaster said. "The track is not in practice shape. But we've had a guy working on it with a tractor, and we've been working on the rail.

"If (the horse racing association) is ready, we're ready."

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

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