Updated on 09/16/2011 8:49AM

Plans to reopen Playfair in 2003 in jeopardy


AUBURN, Wash. - Eric Nelson's bid to resurrect racing at Playfair Race Course in Spokane hit a roadblock Wednesday when the Washington State Horse Racing Commission refused to grant him racing dates for next year.

The commission refused to grant Nelson's request for a 40-day meeting next year because it deemed a contract between Nelson and the track's horsemen to be invalid.

As a condition of the license granted to him on Oct. 31, Nelson, a Las Vegas-based entrepreneur, had to submit a contract agreement with the track's horsemen in order to receive 2003 racing dates. Nelson, who requested a meeting from Sept. 12 through Dec. 7, must be assigned racing dates before he can begin offering simulcast wagering, which is essential for funding Playfair's purse account. He said it is critical for the track to begin simulcast operations by Jan. 2.

At an acrimonious 3 1/2-hour meeting Wednesday, the commission did not act on Nelson's request for dates. According to the commission, a contract Nelson signed with a recently formed horsemen's group, Inland Empire Horsemen's Association, is not valid because the group is not the legally recognized representative of eastern Washington horsemen. Inland Empire, which is headed by Spokane insurance broker and horse owner Bob Johnston, presented a list of 389 supporters, including 47 of the 85 trainers who started horses at the last Playfair meeting, in 2000. But the commission said Inland Empire cannot legally represent horsemen until it wins a formal election.

Since 1995, Spokane-area horsemen have been represented by the Organization for the Preservation of Horse Racing in the Northwest in their negotiations with Playfair, which has staged only three meetings since that time. Nelson has negotiated with the organization, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.

According to J.C. Marshall, an OPHRN board member, his group objects to Nelson's plans for distributing breakage, his plans for paying purse account administration fees out of the purse account itself, and his desire to table negotiations for a share of any revenues from alternative forms of gambling, which currently do not exist.

Nelson in May entered into a 10-year lease with an option to buy with Appleway Leasing Corp., which has owned Playfair since 1981. Nelson objects to OPHRN's demand for a share of any revenues Nelson's organization, Cleopatra Downs LLC, might earn anywhere in Spokane County, and to OPHRN's insistence that certain individuals not be employed at the track. Nelson said he is not optimistic about reaching an agreement with the group.

"I don't know if I'll just walk away, but OPHRN isn't even close," he said. "I'm not going to be able to negotiate with OPHRN. This thing has to be done in a very short period of time. They have made it clear that their demands are non-negotiable, and I can't accept that."

Pat LePley, chairman of the state racing commission, also said he was pessimistic about the negotiations, yet he listed three possible ways out of the current impasse.

"OPHRN could elect a new board if its members aren't happy with their current negotiating committee, or the new group could win an election to represent the horsemen," he said. "The other thing is that maybe OPHRN and Mr. Nelson can still work something out. I'd like to see them do that, but I'm not optimistic that it will happen."

Washington-bred day

In other business, the commission granted Emerald Downs a 92-day 2003 meeting, from April 19 through Sept. 22. The meet would begin at the same time it did this year but end a week later.

At that meeting, Emerald plans to run the inaugural Washington Cup Day on Sept. 20. The program comprises six $50,000 stakes for statebreds. There will be six-furlong stakes for 2-year-old fillies and 2-year-old colts and geldings; mile races for 3-year-old fillies and 3-year-old colts and geldings; and 1 1/16-mile races for older fillies and mares and older horses.

Full details of the program will be released after the Washington division of the HBPA issues its final approval.