11/05/2002 1:00AM

Live racing will return if conditions are met

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SPOKANE, Wash. - Three days after receiving a license to conduct racing at Playfair, Eric Nelson was taking the first steps toward reopening the historic Spokane track, which has not held a race meet since 2000.

"We're starting to address the repairs that we need to make on the facility, and we're trying to nail down a purse contract with the horsemen," Nelson said Monday. "I'm very excited about moving forward."

Nelson plans to request 40 to 43 live racing days at Playfair in 2003, with racing on Friday nights, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons from mid-September through the first week in December. He hopes to begin simulcast operations at the track next month during the week after Christmas.

Playfair was last operated by Lilac City, a nonprofit association made up of horsemen that ran short of money during its 43-day meeting, which ended on Dec. 17, 2000. Lilac City continued to offer simulcast wagering until July 18, 2001, when the commission revoked its license to operate. The association dissolved, leaving unpaid debts to several creditors.

Nelson's license approval, which came after two full days of hearings before the Washington Horse Racing Commission, has 13 conditions attached. Nelson, a Las Vegas-based businessman whose businesses include Wyoming Downs and four card rooms in Washington, said he thinks all the conditions are reasonable and can be met. They include complying with security and safety recommendations, performing recommended repairs to the facility, submitting a contract signed with the horsemen, and contributing more toward offsetting the commission's costs of regulating the track.

Nelson admitted that he couldn't yet gauge the expense he will incur from that last condition. It is projected that the commission will spend roughly $353,000 per year to regulate Playfair while receiving only $101,000 per year from its share of the parimutuel handle. The condition requires Nelson to help find additional income for the commission and, if necessary, to make up any shortfall when and if the commission's fund falls below its statutory minimum of $400,000.

"Fortunately, there is a year's grace period before that condition kicks in, so before then we should know how much money we are talking about," said Nelson. "We should be able to plan for that expense, and we'll work with the horsemen to meet it."

Nelson said his organization, Cleopatra Downs LLC, is close to signing an agreement with the horsemen that will call for a minimum purse level between $2,100 and $2,600. The minimum purse was $2,500 when Playfair last operated under the auspices of Lilac City Racing Association in 2000.

The license to operate Playfair was granted by a 3-1 vote, with commissioner James Hovis absent for personal reasons. Commissioner Ralph Vacca cast the dissenting vote on the grounds that the order should have contained stricter financial requirements and a provision that Playfair bear the full cost of its regulation. On Monday, however, Vacca stressed that he voted against the commission's order and not the track.

"I had reservations about a couple of matters, especially the lack of financial guarantees, and that was why I couldn't sign the order," he said. "But I'm as anxious as anybody for racing to return to eastern Washington, and I wish Mr. Nelson well."