Nobody knows where it’ll lead but the long-awaited advent of simulcast wagering at Playfair Race Course is initially viewed as a return to happier days at the state’s oldest race track.
Warm weather, larger betting pools, full fields and a chance to make some money. These are the promises attached to Playfair’s first season of exporting races to out-of-state betting sites.
It starts Aug. 16 with opening night of a 47-day thoroughbred racing season. Playfair will offer racing three nights a week - Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays - until Monday, Sept. 8, when horsemen will add Mondays and go four nights before a a national audience.
How extensive Playfair’s off-track lineup will be is subject to change. But tracks in Ohio, Illinois, Texas and Montana have already agreed to take races from Spokane, general manager Kim Rich said Wednesday.
Negotiations continue with other sites in the east, and Hastings Park in Vancouver, B.C., she said.
The long-term issue is whether the track and local horsemen can put on an attractive show on a national scale. If Playfair catches on, the depressed local thoroughbred industry stands to benefit, from the breeder to the feed supplier to the manure hauler to the horsemen, who’ll start the season running for a modest $1,800 bottom purse.
Owners and trainers are hoping simulcasting can turn around the uncertainty and decline that has shadowed their sport through the 1990s. Playfair did not operate an on-site race meet in 1996. The track put together a winter meet in January with simulcasting within the state.
Washington was the last state in the country with a thoroughbred industry to adopt legislation authorizing the state’s three major tracks to televise their races out-of-state.
“Everything you hear right now is conjecture,” Rich said, “but we’re told that Illinois expects to do $200,000 a day on our races.”
A host track’s typical take is 2-1/2 to 3 percent - half of which goes to horsemen’s purses. If those projections hold, it would mean roughly $3,000 a day for track operations and $3,000 for horsemen’s purses in Spokane, from Illinois alone.
Playfair’s new chief executive is Don Johnson, 35, a former jockey and racing official who grew up in the Portland area and now lives in Philadelphia.
“Simulcasting has helped and changed the entire industry,” John son said. “Society has changed. We’re more of a society of convenience now. We have to take product out to people. We’re no longer in an environment where you can expect thousands of people to come to you all the time.”
Post times reflect the niche Playfair is trying to carve in the national parimutuel wagering structure. Races start at 7 p.m. on Fridays, and 5 o’clock on Saturday, Sunday and Monday evenings to coincide with ideal starting times in the East.
“We are unique in that we have one of the only thoroughbred racing signals going out to the Eastern seaboard on a night-time format,” said Johnson, who was hired to oversee operations by the Stan Horton group, commonly referred to as Old Playfair.
Horton’s group leases the track from owner Jack Pring but still very much in the picture is the Muckleshoot Tribal Council.
According to a July 19 story in the Daily Racing Form, documents submitted by Playfair secretary-treasurer Dan Hillyard to the Washington Horse Racing Commission at its July meeting show that the tribe is the landlord of the operating company at the track.
Terms of the lease did not sit well with commission chair Barbara Shinpoch, the DRF reported. The lease “seems to violate a 1996 (commission) order that prohibited Playfair Racing Inc., from obtaining financial backing from the Muckleshoot Tribe,” according to the DRF story.
The commission voted to allow the Playfair meet to go on as scheduled while the lease was investigated.
High on the track’s agenda is settling a contract with the horsemen’s bargaining unit, the Organization to Preserve Horse Racing in the Northwest.
Issues are complicated by the components of simulcasting, Rich said.
“There are so many variations, like what we do when Emerald is up vs. when Emerald is down,” she said. “Just learning and doing the research takes time, and it’s just a guestimation this year, because it’s all new.”
The local racing program will be augmented by wagering on two California tracks, Del Mar and the northern California fair circuit.
Until opening night, Playfair will continue to operate as an off-site for most of the nation’s top racing facilities.
Anticipation of a stronger local racing economy has revived interest from horsemen outside the region, racing secretary Ted Martin said.
Plagued for years with a shortage of competitive horses, the track now finds itself with more stall applications than it can accommodate.
“Sadly enough, I’m sitting here, right now, calling trainers who want 12 stalls to find out how many they’re actually coming in with,” Martin said Tuesday. “I have 167 more (applications) than the 930 stalls we have on the grounds.”
Martin said his emotions are bouncing because some horsemen “who need a place to run and have helped us in the past” may wind up with a problem of where to maintain their stock.
The upside is that Martin should find it easier to write and fill races.