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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Playfair royalty: Race course may be gone, but longtime trainer Dan McCanna and his family’s legacy live on

By Jim Price For The Spokesman-Review For The Spokesman-Review

Although the skies are cloudy with smoke on a warm summer morning, Dan McCanna, at 87, is very much at home on the range. The places where he made his mark, school buildings and thoroughbred racetracks, may seem far away. But what he loves most is not.

McCanna, admired former high school educator, trainer of race horses and father of accomplished children, has lived two decades on 220 acres west of this city. Wide-open spaces between outer Davenport and rural Creston might represent a disconnect from his life’s work. But he’s not been put out to pasture. The pasture’s right there, horses within sight, and he’s still handy with a water bucket.

It is Playfair Race Course, which put him and his sons in the public eye, that’s gone. You’ve read correctly. For more than a century, horses raced right here, back when the sport of kings held its own on the Spokane sports calendar. Now, it’s been gone so long, it feels as if it’s almost been forever.


After local racing had its start on the North Side plot that’s now Corbin Park, the original Spokane Interstate Fairgrounds opened at Altamont and Main on Sept. 1, 1901. Sometimes its grandstand, built around sturdy oak beams, couldn’t hold the crowds that watched the ponies run. But the state outlawed racetrack betting before World War I, and the fair itself melted away on the cusp of the Great Depression.

Playfair was born after the state, now starved for revenue, relicensed the sport, and a locally financed 16-day season began on Aug. 30, 1935. Dan McCanna was 17 months old.

Aside from an interruption for World War II, horses raced there through the end of the century. Playfair, increasingly modernized, attracted fans by the thousands. Horse breeders and owners, industry workers and management prospered. By the 1980s, annual seasons began mid-spring and extended deep into the fall. Boosted by its peak years, beginning in the mid-1960s, Playfair, operating 67 years, attracted about 13 million people.

Jockeys who rode here went on to win national and regional championships. Dozens of the top Northwest trainers and many of the best horses became household names. In 1970, Playfair added lights for regular night programs. Its historic grandstand was the country’s fourth oldest racing facility. And the Spokane Derby was the West’s oldest stakes race.

In this state alone, in 1991, Seattle’s Longacres, Yakima Meadows and Playfair conducted 292 race days. Now, with Yakima and Spokane long gone, and Longacres succeeded by Emerald Downs, there are only 50. Where have they gone?

On the heels of the inflation-driven 1980s recession, the state, willing to satisfy fresh needs with greater sin-tax revenue, licensed competition from card rooms.

Then came casinos and national off-track betting, then more casinos, and now sports betting is on the horizon. Attendance for live racing shrank. Racing’s own problems, headed by insufficient national marketing and a lack of uniform rules, shared the blame. Political wrangling and over-exposure did the rest.

In the 1990s, as off-track wagering spread and became the dominant source of industry income, secondary tracks, such as Playfair, couldn’t compete for choice dates.

By the time the Spokane track breathed its last, racing took place only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays. On its final day, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2000, the temperature was in the mid-20s. And it snowed. Ironically, a horse named Sunshine Scholar won the very last race.


Through the bitter end and beyond, McCannas have prevailed.

Three of them accumulated six Playfair training titles and 17 other top 10 finishes. Each conditioned local stakes winners. They have saddled the winning horse in almost 3,000 races, nearly 30% of them in Spokane.

Dan McCanna and his three sisters were raised in the Spokane Valley. The modern-day Ford dealership sits right across Sprague Avenue from the family’s 10 acres. Their mother ran a dairy. Her husband, from a pioneer family, had begun an oil company career. The boy fancied horses and attended school at Saint Paschal and St. Aloysius. After moving on to Gonzaga Prep, he graduated from Gonzaga University, ready to teach and armed with a counseling certificate. After a year in Valleyford, brand new East Valley High School hired him as assistant principal.

On June 11, 1960, within days of receiving his diploma, he had saddled his first winner, Big Return, a horse he’d bought for $135. By 1968, he had rehabilitated Tres Oro’s, a speed-burner so sore-legged he could barely stand and sent him out to win 17 of his next 50 starts.

McCanna, who says he liked the challenge, began to accumulate “horses with injuries I could fix.”

Two hundred acres in Deer Park became a test site for rehab projects. There, his sons, Tim, Ray and Boone, and their sister, Kerri, helped with the chores, and the boys galloped the horses. Dad perfected a variable-speed overhead carousel he called The Jogger. Equipped with a sling, it brought horses back to fitness without putting stress on their legs.

McCanna, combining early mornings in Playfair’s stable area with his full-time job at East Valley, managed to be successful at both. Author Jess Walter, once sent on an extracurricular errand to the track, knew him as a central figure at school.

“I remember Dan so well! And his connection to Playfair. Everyone knew he kept and trained horses,” Walter said. “He had this great combination of really caring about kids and a kind of irreverence that made you think whatever little problems were plaguing you at East Valley High School in 1983 were probably going to be OK.”

Although two decades passed before McCanna led the Playfair standings, he finished among the leaders several times. He first showed up on the list in 1972. The next year, he placed fourth, and his best horse, Ima Hitter, won the Playfair Mile. Then, after ending the decade with third- and fourth-place finishes, he turned to coaching his oldest son.

Tim had dropped out of WSU after a single semester. Exchanging his textbooks for a training license, he won 15 races as a 19-year-old in 1981 and followed that with four straight championships.

McCanna rejoined the leaders in 1986, when Tim was second, and claimed his own title with a whopping 55 victories in 1987. When Tim moved on to Portland Meadows and newly opened Emerald Downs, Ray, a former University of Idaho defensive back, had his own stable of horses and cracked the top 10 four straight times.

Boone, who’d been co-captain of Idaho’s 1987 football champions, gravitated to the track as a jockey agent. Booking mounts for top riders in Seattle and California, he found them plenty of their winners in his older brother’s barn.

“I was a horsy guy,” their father explained, “and my boys took to it.”

Tim went on to lead the Emerald Downs trainers 10 times in 14 years, and he’s already been elected to the Washington Racing Hall of Fame. He continued to send horses to Playfair and, as the track’s end drew near, he finished only one winner short of another title. Now, his stable contends for Northern California titles, primarily at Golden Gate Fields.


And what became of Playfair?

Las Vegas casino investor Eric Nelson leased it in the fall of 2001. But he and local horse owners couldn’t come to terms for a live meet, so he gave up, and the entire facility was demolished in March 2004. The city bought the 63 acres from auto dealer Jack Pring, who had operated the track himself in the 1980s.

When city plans changed, local manufacturer Larry Stone stepped forward. Since 2009, he has redeveloped the property as Playfair Industrial Park.

Through Friday, Tim McCanna, moving toward a place among the sport’s all-time top 50, has had 2,332 winners.

Ray gave up the track for the oil business. Later, he and a partner marketed a cleaning fluid that has gained worldwide distribution.

Boone uses the family’s Lincoln County property to operate Down The Stretch Ranch, a nonprofit home for aged thoroughbreds. The horses aren’t exactly retired.

Under Boone’s guidance, they provide therapeutic rehabilitation for military veterans and targeted recreation for children from Fairchild Air Force Base.

Their sister? Kerri Ames stayed on the education track. Now she’s the principal at Central Valley High School.

Because there’s no permanent help, McCanna shares the workload out at Down The Stretch. It’s quiet there to the west of us. There’s a lot of desert, some wheat fields, unpaved roads and, best of all, old creatures with a new mission. For man and horse, these are the good old days.