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Memories of Playfair are bittersweet, as fans of former Spokane horse track find other venues

After more than a century of horse racing in Spokane, Playfair closed the gates on its final meet on December 17, 2000. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive / File)
After more than a century of horse racing in Spokane, Playfair closed the gates on its final meet on December 17, 2000. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive / File)

When Playfair closed the gates on its final meet on Dec. 17, 2000, local racing fans were forced to find other outlets to follow their favorite sport. Like a congregation without a church, Playfair’s flock dispersed.

So when Justify bursts from the gate at Belmont Park this afternoon, Playfair’s former patrons will be watching from living rooms, barrooms, casinos, dog tracks, billiard rooms and bowling alleys.

The Playfair Race Course property, now an industrial park, shows little evidence of its former glory. Former patron Denise Belcourt still grieves. “I hate even driving by, it’s so sad,” she said. “The other day I drove in to look around, and I actually started to cry.”

Scandal, West Side politics and casino gambling had rendered the track a shadow of its former glory by the end, but there was a time when Playfair was Spokane’s hottest ticket.

“There used to be between three and five thousand people who went to Playfair every week,” said Steve Pierre. “There was always a big crowd there.”

Ken Jolley operated a betting window during the track’s heyday, working the North Line before moving to the Paddock Lounge.

“I’d walk around Spokane, and everybody looked familiar,” he said. “I worked there eight years, and I bet 90 percent of the people in the city of Spokane over the age of 18, at one time or another, bet at my window.”

Denise’s father Ken Belcourt was a Playfair regular. “We could always find him at the finish line,” said Denise. “We’d all meet up there … we’d just laugh and enjoy ourselves. It was like part of our family.”

Ken Belcourt moved to Spokane in 1980. “My brother took me down to the track,” he said. “I think I won some money the first time.”

“It’s all over when you do that,” he said, laughing.

Jolley recalled the swirling madness that tore through the track on 50-cent beer night. “You would always see lines out the door,” he said.

“You’d have ladies running around, wearing hardly anything because it was 100 degrees outside. They’d come to my window and say, ‘I want ten dollars to win on the pretty pink horse,’ ” he said.

Horseplayers cash more tickets on favorites, but they remember the long shots. One night, a friend asked Denise Belcourt for three random numbers to put down on a trifecta, a bet that the track only offered on the final race of the evening. Without thinking, she blurted out 2-4-6.

“After he left to make the bet, we looked up at the board, and they were all like 90-1. They were horrible. But they came in,” she said.

Local off-track betting parlors are a far cry from the teeming, screaming Playfair crowds. Patrons slouch at tiny tables in smoky kiosks, poring over the Daily Racing Form, gazing at banks of flat-screen televisions and imploring the inevitable usurping long shots to die in the stretch, so they don’t spoil their carefully crafted exacta wheels.

Pierre is a fixture at Northern Quest Resort and Casino’s off-track betting parlor. “On TV, it’s alright,” he said. “But it’s not the same. That’s the fun of horse racing, seeing them live.”

“If there was a place … where they could put in a mile track, you would once again see (crowds) going out there to see live horse racing. Then there would be jobs and all that stuff,” he said.

Like the Belcourts, Pierre still laments the loss of Playfair. “It was the oldest track this side of the Mississippi,” he said. “It was a historic landmark; it could have been saved.”

Ken Belcourt, 81, will watch Justify chase history from his living room. “I still watch all the major races, but I don’t play them as much,” he said.

Belcourt usually heads to Northern Quest when he wants to get a bet down. “I still see a lot of guys that used to go to Playfair,” he said. “Boy, they are really aging.”

He laughed. “As I am.”


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