Bill opens gate to local horse races

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Eastern Washington's struggling horse tracks can now seek private funds to support operations, if they can find them.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed Senate Bill 5747 into law Tuesday. Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, was the bill's prime sponsor.

The bill changes the state statute governing nonprofit horse tracks to allow them to receive both public and private funds, Hewitt said. The only nonprofit tracks in the state are in Walla Walla, Waitsburg, Kennewick and Dayton. The only for-profit track is Emerald Downs in Auburn.

In February, the state Horse Racing Commission denied race dates to all but the Kennewick track for 2011, citing a lack of funds available for racing. The bulk of the money used to sustain operations at the four tracks comes from a tax on wagering on horse racing. But that income has been steadily dropping due to competition from Indian casinos and other games, such as lotteries, officials say.

Robert Lopez, the commission's executive secreatary, said in February that even if race dates at the Eastern Washington tracks were cut to zero, projections show the racing commission's fund balance will be negative by 2013 due to dropping revenues.

Hewitt said today that while the measure opens a financial door for the tracks, "no one is anticipating any funds at this point."

"This gives them the latitude to stay in the hunt and accept some private funds if they can find it," he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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