KENNEWICK — What began as a straight-away sprint in front of wooden grandstands has turned into Sun Downs, one of the premier racing venues on the east side of the state.
However, area horsemen are concerned rental rate increases and other stall and track modifications being made by Benton County could kill off horse racing in the Tri-Cities and possibly Eastern Washington.
Benton County commissioners decided in August to revise the county’s horse stall rental policy. In the past, fairgrounds stalls were open about 11 months a year. Horses were moved prior to the county fair in August and moved back in after.
The county decided in August to reduce the number of months the stalls are open from 11 to four. Beginning next year, the stalls will be rented from Feb. 1 to May 31.
Commissioner Max Benitz Jr. said the county maintains the racetrack and rents the stalls at a loss. That prompted officials to raise rental rates and reduce how long the stalls will be open.
Monthly fees for a stall in Row A are going from $125 to $195 and from $75 to $100 for a stall in Row B. Renters also will have to pay a 12.83 percent tax.
Benitz said the county lost $12,416 maintaining the track and stalls in 2008. “I still don’t think we’ll make a profit, but we’re getting closer,” Benitz said.
The changes aren’t sitting well with folks involved in the Mid-Columbia horse racing community. Malon Cowgill has kept racehorses at the fairgrounds for more than 10 years. After moving his horses in August to accommodate the fair, Cowgill was prepared to bring them back to his usual stalls in late September or early October.
Instead, he received a letter from the county saying the stalls wouldn’t reopen until 2010.
He now keeps about a dozen horses in Hermiston.
“There’s no facility in the Tri-Cities with the size and magnitude where you can train a racehorse,” Cowgill said.
Burbank-based trainer Bob Lawrence has seen his business shrivel in recent months.
“It basically cuts your business down to nothing,” he said of the county’s decision to close the stalls until next year. “We’re basically operating out of our home with four acres, eight stalls and no racetrack.”
Lawrence usually trains 20 to 30 horses this time of year to prepare for the spring races at Sun Downs and other Northwest tracks. He’s training four right now.
Longtime Tri-City trainer Bill Hoburg usually breaks between 15 and 20 2-year-olds each year.
He’s got two right now. Once business begins to pick up in 2010, he plans to move his operation to Hermiston, where he will work his horses until February. He said the rate increase at the Benton County Fairgrounds stalls has priced him out of the horse training business in the Tri-Cities.
“Instead of charging you $35 a day, I’m going to have to charge you $55 a day,” Hoburg said. “I’m not going to raise my (fees) .... What I’m going to have to do is move.”
He’s heading to Oklahoma next year. “I’ve given up,” he said. “This is my last year, and I’m going to pack my program up and take it to Oklahoma.”
Cliff Schellinger, president of the Tri-City Horse Racing Association, didn’t mince words when he considered what Hoburg’s absence could do to racing in Kennewick.
“If Bill leaves, that’s going to kill us,” he said.
Hoburg sometimes brings dozens of horses to Sun Downs.
“When I bring 30 head of horses into that racetrack, I’m a major player,” Hoburg said.
Racetracks still operate in four Eastern Washington cities — Kennewick, Dayton, Walla Walla and Waitsburg. Schellinger said the four together spend $120,000 on insurance. The Tri-City Horse Racing Association pays for more than half.
Without the group’s contribution, Schellinger doesn’t think the others will be able to afford to insure races at their home tracks.“I think it’s well known that if Sun Downs closes, that will be the end of horse racing in Eastern Washington,” he said. “I’d hate to see it disappear.”
Benitz said he’s spoken with residents concerned about what could happen to horse racing in the Tri-Cities. “They want Benton County to support the horse racing industry,” he said. “They want to keep the rates as reasonable as possible and continue to have a spring meet.”
Benitz said the county is trying to accommodate the racing community, but he said budget cuts and a soft economy have limited what the county can do.
“I think we’re trying the best we can with the budget we have,” he said.
Benitz said county officials looked at several scenarios to modify how the stalls and track are run, including charging different prices for weekend and weekday use of the track and changing rates so the stalls could remain open year-round. Benitz said the county will re-evaluate stall and track operations next year.
“I think ... we have to review this on an annual basis and see where we’re at,” he said.
Until then, Cowgill and Lawrence are concerned that the county’s August decision has hurt local businesses and reduced sales tax revenue. For example, Lawrence estimated he pays between $200 to $300 a month to feed each of his horses.
“I’m only spending about 20 percent of what I would be,” he said.
Despite the challenges facing the local horse racing community, few are ready to give up.
“I’m too stubborn for it to put me out of business,” Lawrence said.
Schellinger expects horses to run at Sun Downs in 2010.
“We’re committed and we’re going to try,” he said.
But beyond that, he’s not so sure.
“This could very well be it.”