The Tri-Cities Horse Racing Association begins its 26th season of racing Saturday at Sun Downs with a 10-race card to open the six-date meet.
But horse racing has gone on much longer than that at the Kennewick track.
Most people aren’t aware, said Nancy Sorick of the TCHRA, that Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas got their starts at Sun Downs.
“They used to train quarter horses here in the 1970s,” Sorick said. “This was one of the few places to train quarter horses. Then they went into thoroughbreds.”
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Of course, those two have been at the top of the world as trainers, with winners at the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders Cup.
Most people don’t know that a young Gary Stevens rode horses at the Kennewick track.
The Hall of Fame jockey continues to ride and has acted in movies and television.
Back in the 1970s, before casinos and state lotteries started getting a piece of the gambling money pie, horse tracks were the place to be.
“We were the first track in the Northwest to be open all year because of the great weather,” Sorick said. “So people would come to train here all of the time. You might have 700 head of horses here at one time. They’d get races under their belt, then move on to Oklahoma and California.”
That still happens.
Trainers work their horses here for the short meet, then move on to bigger tracks in the western United States.
There will be some big races for this meet — which runs this Saturday and Sunday, then April 27-28, and May 4-5. Post times are 1 p.m. each day.
“We have some (quarter horse) Challenge races,” said Sorick. “I don’t think most people understand the magnitude of those. It’s like the Kentucky Derby to the thoroughbreds. These are the first steps towards that.”
Shorty Martin, the racing secretary at Sun Downs, said the Kennewick track will have two of the Challenge series qualifiers, in which the winner qualifies for the finals, set for Nov. 6-9 in Los Alamitos.
“Most people are aware of the Breeders Cup,” Martin said. “Actually, what the Challenge series has is six different categories for finals. These races are a step toward that. There are trials in South America, Canada and Mexico too, and the finals are all in Los Alamitos. These are like the quarter horse Breeders Cup.”
The other big race at Sun Downs meet will be the annual Pot O’Gold Futurity, which usually has at least a $30,000 purse.
Martin said the trials for the bigger races will be run this weekend, with the second weekend filled with some thoroughbred races. The final weekend will consist of the meet’s major races, including a chance for fans too wager on the Kentucky Derby on May 4.
Martin had his first draw Wednesday for Saturday’s races. He was expecting a number of horses to be entered. He wasn’t disappointed.
“Emerald Downs is opening this weekend,” Martin said. “But for quarter horses, we’re the only game around in the Northwest. Portland Meadows is up in the air right now as to whether they run or not.”
Because of that, some trainers — like Scott Rainey and Baxter Andruss, who normally keep their stable at Portland — are bringing 12 to 16 horses for the meet.
“I knew we’d have the horses,” Martin said. “Now we’re gonna get to it.”