KENNEWICK — The top horsemen in Washington are concerned about Sun Downs closing, so they've made suggestions they hope will keep the horses galloping in the Tri-Cities.
Paul George, chairman of the Washington Horse Racing Commission, called Sun Downs "the key to live horse racing in Eastern Washington" in a letter he wrote to the Benton County commissioners. Without racing at Sun Downs, "I would venture to say the (other Eastern Washington tracks) won't run either."
Several horsemen across the Tri-Cities have said a horse stall rental increase to be imposed in 2010 will price too many horse owners and trainers out of the Benton County Fairgrounds. Cliff Schellinger, president of the Tri-City Horse Racing Association, said a dearth of horses and trainers may threaten the future of racing at Sun Downs.
When horses return to the stalls in February, monthly fees in Row A are jumping from $125 to $195 per stall and from $75 to $100 for a stall in Row B. Renters also will pay a 12.83 percent tax.
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The state Horse Racing Commission has offered two suggestions to county officials to possibly reduce future horse stall rental fees by cutting county maintenance costs. The suggestions were made in an e-mail sent to county Commissioner Leo Bowman by Bob Lopez, executive secretary of the Washington Horse Racing Commission.
The Tri-City Horse Racing Association leases the track and horse stalls from the county during the racing season and maintains the track during that time. The lease runs from March 27 to May 9 next year and from April 2 to May 15 in 2011. During that time, the association either pays the county a lump sum of $10,000 to lease the grounds or performs at least $10,000 worth of improvements, called lease-hold improvements.
"They've always met or exceeded the lease-hold agreement," Commissioner Max Benitz Jr. said. "There are constant improvements done out there by the Tri-City Horse Racing Association pursuant to the lease. They have been very good tenants."
Lopez suggested lengthening the amount of time the association leases the grounds from the county, which, Lopez believes, would reduce the amount of money the county spends maintaining the track. He suggested leasing the grounds to Blue Mountain Racing, an Eastern Washington horse racing group, from Feb. 1 to May 9 in 2010 and 2011, which would allow the group to maintain the grounds to its preference.
Lopez also asked what would have to be done to allow Blue Mountain Racing members to maintain the grounds outside of the lease date, and what affect that might have on rental rates.
Lopez and George sat down to discuss the suggestions with Commissioner Leo Bowman several weeks ago, but haven't heard back.
"I'm waiting until the first of the year to follow up," Lopez said Friday.
Bowman said he forwarded Lopez's e-mail and George's letter to county staff and officials. He said allowing noncounty workers to maintain the county-owned property could raise liability issues. "I'll make an assumption that the staff has looked into it," Bowman said.
Both Bowman and Benitz, who said he hadn't seen Lopez's e-mail as of Friday, said the suggestions would be considered.
"Whenever our lease agreement comes up ... we're always open to looking at new ideas," Benitz said.
The lease agreement between the Tri-City Horse Racing Association and Benton County expires May 15, 2011, which, some members of the horse racing community say, could be too late to save horse racing at Sun Downs.
In the past, the horse stalls were occupied for most of the year and were only vacated during a stretch in the summer: just before, just after and during the county fair in August. The stalls will be open four months in 2010, from Feb. 1 to May 31. Racing at Sun Downs begins in April. They are closed right now, after renters and trainers received a letter from the county in the fall telling them that grounds would not reopen after this year's fair.
The track is groomed to the Tri-City Horse Racing Association's specifications during the period the group leases the grounds from the county, which begins just before the races begin. Schellinger said that doesn't leave enough time for trainers to get horses ready to compete. "It takes 90 days to get a horse ready to race."
Between the raise in rental fees and the inability to keep the track maintained to the association's standards, Schellinger said many top trainers are considering leaving the Tri-Cities. He's not sure how long horse racing in Benton County can sustain itself.
"It's just starting to look so grim," he said.
As long as the state commission has the money -- it operates on a $5 million biennial budget funded with a percentage of dollars skimmed off wagers -- George said it will continue to work toward keeping the horses running at Sun Downs. In the past six years, the state commission has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on improvements at Sun Downs, including adding a new safety rail, new track surface, repairing the men's jockey room and upgrading the test barn.
"We've spent a lot of money over there and we don't want to see horse racing over there go away," Lopez said.