It’s almost post time.
After nearly 10 months of being cooped up in front of TV screens, glued to a simulcast, horse players in Spokane are about to go live.
Playfair opens Wednesday night for 50 days of on-site thoroughbred racing. It’s a brief season, the shortest in Spokane since 1971.
The positive spin on it is that every race will be simulcast statewide, promising healthier betting pools. With nine additional days of statewide simulcasting, up from 41 days last year, horsemen will compete for larger purses.
Track officials say they’ll have more than enough competitive horses on the grounds, creating the potential for higher payoffs.
But by any account, this is a bare-bones meet designed to cope with declining on-site business. The track has abandoned its bring-the-family marketing approach of the past, hoping full fields of competitive horses will appeal to off-track audiences.
In so doing, Playfair has pushed itself into the arctic blasts of post-Thanksgiving weather. The meet is scheduled to end on Nov. 27, the latest getaway day in track history.
Still, with the persistence of a lot of people, particularly local horsemen, the show goes on for a 59th season.
Wednesday night’s feature is the Inaugural Purse, in which Hope’s Rullah, a front-running 8-year-old gelding owned by Evelyn Warthen of Spokane and ridden by Darrell Brinkerhoff, will try to make his usual opening-night stir.
Hope’s Rullah, who has won on opening night at Playfair for three straight years, is opposed by Stubble, Storm Road, Ought To Burn, Early Shove, Storm On Hand and Extreme, a four-time Playfair winner last year. Marty Wentz will ride Extreme.
The 6-furlong dash is the highlight of a 10-race card that starts at 6 p.m. Gates open at 5. Saturday and Sunday race cards start at 1:30 p.m.
Stubble, a wire-to-wire winner on Aug. 24 at Yakima, is ridden by Vince Ward. Jason Eads has the riding assignment on Storm Road, a four-time Yakima winner this year.
They will help inaugurate a season that is geared for the coming weather change.
The racing surface is already plotted to handle moisture and declining temperatures.
“The month of September, when the weather is nice, if we don’t get enough water on it we could have a laboring surface,” general manager Dan Hillyard said. “But by the time we get into October and November, it’ll be a very good track surface for the winter meet.”
A middle portion of the 4,000-seat grandstand has been closed, and the Feedbag and beer garden have been discontinued.
“We’ve knifed out the middle of the facility and will keep either end open,” Hillyard said. “We’ve designed the facility to try to bring fans into the traffic area that we can deal with from a weather standpoint,”
The box seating area will be open to at no extra charge.
“A small portion of the grandstand will be open for the entire meet so that if we have a guy who wants to go out there in a parka, he can,” Hillyard said.
The impact of a 50-day season is softer than Playfair’s 73 days of racing a year ago, when the track’s payroll approached $1.25 million, Hillyard said.
The payroll won’t approach $1.25 million this time around. Seasonal employees, who represent 70 percent of the work force, will earn a third less in a meet roughly a third shorter.
Beyond that, owners and trainers will need fewer grooms, less hay, fewer visits from the vet. Paychecks will be lighter up and down the line.
The future, Hillyard said, comes down to change or die.
Playfair president Stan Horton leases the track from Spokane businessman Jack Pring. Horton’s lease expires after the ‘96 season.
“The only way - the only way - this track can continue into the future is with some changes from the state Legislature,” Hillyard said. “That’s our position, but that’ll be the position of anybody who’s interested in this track.”
Authorization by the state for open-card simulcast wagering - the opportunity to watch and wager on races nationwide - is a necessity, he said.
Full-carding is the license to offer racing programs from out-of-state tracks. Local money goes into the huge nationwide wagering pools at the host facility.
Greyhound Park in Post Falls simulcasts full programs from Calder (Fla.) Race Course and Ellis (Ky.) Park, plus the California tracks that are inseason that now include Bay Meadows, Delmar and the Sacramento Fair.
Combined with on-site dog racing, full-carding of horse races just across the state line is an attractive alternative to the region’s gamblers.
Washington state law prohibits full-card satellite wagering. Washington is one of only two states (of 29 states with horse tracks) that has not adopted full-card simulcasting, Playfair publicist Jim Price said.
Playfair offers simulcast wagering on 32 out-of-state stakes races - 39 including the Oct. 28 Breeders Cup - with one essential difference. Wagering stays in-state, making for smaller, intramural, in-state betting pools.
“We’re dealing with a dinosaur here,” Hillyard said. “Everybody in the industry knows it. It’s just a matter of when they want to acknowledge it. We’ve got regulatory government officials with no money invested in our meet who are putting us out of business.”
After voting to break away from the Washington Division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, their traditional negotiating arm, local horse owners and trainers are represented by the Organization to Preserve Horse Racing in the Northwest (OPHRN).
“Quite frankly, if they hadn’t done that we wouldn’t be here right now,” Hillyard said. “We would have closed it last year. For the first time we have horsemen standing side by side with us.
“We’re never going to be unified in everything, but we’ve got somebody sitting at the table with us. From our perspective, by setting up their own group and representing themselves, the horsemen have stepped into the fray. They’re saying they’re willing to fight for this track to the end.”
Success “all comes down to horses,” Hillyard said. “If we have the horses we’ll have a good meet. If we don’t, we’re going to struggle.
“In the past, when we ran in July or August and I had short fields, I could have a nice promotion and feel I was still offering a show. Now, everything comes down to horse racing.
“The horsemen have the most at stake. The way I see it right now, they’re ready to do battle.”
Scratches, changes in the program and results again are available by calling 535-1541… . The complete call of a race is available for a charge at (900) 420-6789 (select category 759). … Playfair again offers the twin trifecta, where if players pick the first three finishers of the seventh race they get a shot at selecting the first three in the eighth. Money on the twin trifecta is carried over until somebody hits it… . Buck Hopkins returns as presiding steward. Other stewards are Bob Lightfoot and Doug White. Former jockey Doug Moore has been promoted from clocker and horse indentifier to assistant steward.
The track has dropped its lowest claiming price from $2,500 to $1,600. One $1,600 race and a $2,000 claiming race are scheduled each day… . Jockey Akifumi Kato, who has 1,104 wins at Playfair, returns for a 23rd season… . Two stakes races highlight the weekend program. Saturday’s Sweetheart Handicap has drawn last year’s champion distaffer Montani. Candidates for Sunday’s Inland Empire Speed Handicap include last year’s sprint champ, Che Meza, and the runner-up in the ‘94 Spokane Derby, No Small Buzz.