Budget cuts could push area horse racing off track

The state Horse Racing Commission may have no money for four tracks in Eastern Washington.


WALLA WALLA -- Budget cuts may rein in regional horse racing in the near future.

Faced with a steep drop in operating funds, the Washington Horse Racing Commission has told track managers in Walla Walla, Dayton, Waitsburg and Kennewick that money may not be available this year, or in coming years, for their tracks. Even if some racing isn't canceled this year, the cuts could halt future race meets in Walla Walla and elsewhere, said Cory Hewitt, Walla Walla County fairgrounds general manager.

Robert Lopez, WHRC executive director, said the racing commission will meet Feb. 10 to decide if it will fund race dates at the four tracks and, if so, how many days will be funded.

At the commission's Nov. 19 meeting, Lopez said that even if race days at the Eastern Washington tracks were cut to zero, financial projections show the racing commission's "fund balance will be negative by 2013." If that happens, horse racing in the state would be halted because the commission would be unable to function.

Last year the racing commission provided $328,754 to fund 19 days of racing at the four tracks, 10 days at Kennewick, five at Walla Walla and two days each at Waitsburg and Dayton. This year, Kennewick's Sun Downs has requested 10 days and Dayton two days. Walla Walla and Waitsburg have not yet submitted requests, Lopez said.

The racing commission regulates parimutuel horse racing at Washington state's five tracks. These include the four Eastern Washington tracks and Emerald Downs, the state's only for-profit track. The commission's activities are funded solely by a tax on wagering and as wagering revenue goes down, so does its operating funds, Lopez said. The other sources of funds for nonprofit tracks include fees on off-track sources, fines levied by the commission and interest on operating funds accounts.

Lopez said tax revenues from wagering have dropped steadily since 2008 and are projected to drop again this year. The cumulative effect between 2008 and 2011 is that revenues are projected to be down 37 percent for all operations the racing commission is required to perform.

Hewitt said funds from the commission provide the purse money for races, incentive money for jockeys and pay for the insurance the tracks need to operate. Apart from purse money and the jockeys' incentives, "our biggest issue is the insurance," she said.

The Walla Walla County Fair Board met Tuesday night, but has made no decision yet on how many race days to request this year, Hewitt said. "They want to talk with Dayton and Waitsburg to see what they are going to do." The board will then call a special meeting to decide on what days to apply for this year.

Hewitt said that in the years she has been involved with horse racing at the fair, there have always been problems. But this year is different.

"We're going do what we can," she said. "There's always something, but this one really hurts."

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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