Creativity needed to save Tri-City horse racing meet

With higher rental rates for stalls at the Benton County Fairgrounds around the corner, racehorse trainers are fretting about a potential end to the sport of kings in Kennewick.

For that matter, it could be the end of horse racing in all of Eastern Washington, as smaller tracks in outlying cities rely on participants who train and board their horses here.

The industry is worth saving. It generates income for hundreds of horsemen and provides entertainment to thousands of fans.

But who should pay the cost of keeping it alive?

Stall rates are going up $70 per month in the newer barns at the fairgrounds and $25 a month in the old wooden barns. Renters will also pay a $12.83 tax.

In addition to the rate increase, Benton County officials have cut the time trainers can use the fairgrounds from 11 months per year to just four.

It takes a minimum of 90 days to get a 2-year-old racehorse ready to compete. That means time on a racetrack with a boarding facility nearby -- a combination that has become scarce in Eastern Washington.

Between the shortened training season and the stall fees, many trainers say they're being priced out of the business, or at least out of Eastern Washington.

While an additional $25 or $70 a month may not sound like a deal-breaker, most trainers are working with several horses at a time. Multiply the increased fees by 30 horses, and it starts to add up.

Most racehorse trainers operate on a slim margin to start with, sustained as much by the dream of the next fairy-tale champion as any real profits.

Benton County Commissioner Max Benitz says the county lost more than $12,000 maintaining the race track and stalls in 2008 for the trainers.

During the race meet, Tri-City Horse Racing Association leases the grounds from Benton County for $10,000. The association can opt to substitute in-kind improvements, which is what usually happens. Barns are painted, stall doors are repaired, jockey rooms are improved.

It makes sense that the county can't afford to lose money in these tough times. County taxpayers should not be in the business of subsidizing horse racing.

Some increase in stall rents seems an appropriate way to try to recoup some of the losses. If the new fees are too high, what's a realistic figure?

As in any industry, horse racing brings some bad apples with the good. Some trainers are late or default on stall rents. High-strung race horses can wreak havoc on decades-old barns, busting holes through walls and pawing up dirt by the bucketful, leaving a mess when the 4-Hers need the barns.

Horses also create waste mixed with dirty straw or wood shavings. The stuff piles up and creates a headache for the county.

At some other tracks, stall contracts come with a page of conditions on the trainers, including random searches, character references and damage deposits.

Horses have been racing at the fairgrounds for decades, and we'd like to see that continue. But it's not the taxpayers' responsibility to subsidize the industry.

Benton County, local trainers, Tri-City Horse Racing and the Washington State Horse Racing Commission need to come up with creative cost-cutting or revenue-generating methods to keep the sport alive in Eastern Washington.

The deficit is $12,000. That shouldn't present an insurmountable challenge. Private sponsors might be found to pick up some of the costs.

It's encouraging to see leaders in the racing industry are already looking at ways to lessen the burden on the county. That's the way to solve the problem.