06/07/2001 11:00PM

Playfair and Emerald butt heads on dates

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AUBURN, Wash. - Playfair and Emerald Downs are at loggerheads over an amended dates request submitted by Playfair to the Washington Horse Racing Commission.

Playfair, which has been granted a 2001 season of 43 days, stretching from Sept. 16 through Dec. 17, now wishes to race 40 days, from Aug. 15 through Nov. 19.

Bruce Wagar, the president of Playfair's operating company, Lilac City Racing Association, told the WHRC at a meeting in Auburn on Thursday that the change is necessary to make racing financially viable at Playfair.

"We lost $248,000 racing last December," he said. "Our ontrack handle went down and our expenses went up because of the cold weather. This year we project that our energy costs will increase by 50 percent because of the current shortage, and we just can't afford that."

November and December were the worst months at last year's inaugural Lilac City meeting at Playfair, which showed losses of roughly $700,000 for the meet. Lilac City has taken several steps to remedy its financial plight, including the renegotiation of its lease with property owner Jack Pring, the renegotiation of its contract with the horsemen, and the institution of numerous cost-cutting measures. The company's board has concluded that an earlier racing season will also be necessary both to make racing viable and to justify projections needed to secure new funds for start-up expenses this year.

Playfair's amended dates request would result in an overlap with Emerald Downs, which is scheduled to race through Sept. 15. The one-month overlap is unacceptable, Emerald officials say.

"This state cannot support two racetracks at one time, period," Ron Crockett, president of Emerald Downs, told the commission. "The state does not have enough horseflesh." Emerald has cut seven Wednesdays from its meeting because of a shortage of entries.

Wagar and Ted Stevens, Playfair's director of racing, argued that Playfair's lower purses and class levels mean that the two tracks attract different horses, but Emerald officials said the loss of even 100 horses to Playfair would impact Emerald's racing. Crockett suggested that an agreement whereby horses currently stabled at Emerald could not start at Playfair before the Emerald meeting ends could solve the problem, but the legality of such an agreement was questioned.

The commission took no action on Playfair's new dates request, but will revisit the issue at its next meeting.

One thing became clear at Thursday's meeting, however. Playfair's financial problems will be difficult to overcome without some changes. A report from the commission's auditor, Patrick J. Crowley, said the track needs about $500,000 in capital, including $150,000 to start the next live meet. The report also projected a $196,000 shortfall in the $830,000 in purses Playfair is contracted to offer at its next meeting.

In other business, the WHRC approved a $5 per losing mount increase in jockey fees at Emerald Downs. The commission also announced the departure of its counsel for the past decade, Meredith Morton, because of a reorganization of the Attorney General's office. Morton will be replaced by assistant attorney general Suzanne Shaw.

First-timer in depleted stakes

Sunday's first 2-year-old stakes of the Emerald Downs meeting, the five furlong, $35,000 Pierce County Stakes for Washington-bred fillies, will be missing some prominent names. Trainer Dave Doutrich reported that Obispo Kid, the winner of the only maiden special weight race for juvenile fillies yet to be contested at the meet, is running a temperature. Briar Rose, who finished a close second to Obispo Kid, was entered back in another straight maiden race scheduled for June 9.

With the Pierce County now appearing to be wide open, bettors might want to take a close look at first-time starter Music to My Heart, a Coal Creek Farm homebred by Game Plan out of Sodeartomyheart. Sodeartomyheart is the dam of Country Heart, who won four races and placed in stakes after suffering a broken neck as a yearling, and of Que Facil Corazon, who won the recent Kent Handicap despite losing her lower jaw to cancer surgery as a yearling.

So what catastrophes has Music to My Heart had to overcome?

"None," said trainer Lyle Stark. "She has never had a problem, so we're hoping she'll be the best one yet from her dam. She's more powerfully built than her sisters and she has done everything right. We've got high hopes for her."

o Frank Gonsalves became the first rider to win 500 races at Emerald Downs when he won Thursday's seventh on Daisy's Mercedes. He quickly collected Emerald win No. 501 on Oh Molly in the featured eighth race. The 43-year old rider is nearing another milestone in his career, as he is just 45 wins shy of 2,000 wins.