12/04/2002 1:00AM

Playfair reopening in jeopardy

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AUBURN, Wash. - Eric Nelson's plans for resurrecting racing at Spokane's Playfair Race Course lay in shambles in the wake of an acrimonious 3 1/2-hour meeting of the Washington Horse Racing Commission on Wednesday.

As a condition of the license granted to Nelson on Oct. 31, the Las Vegas-based entrepreneur had to submit a contract agreement with the track's horsemen in order to receive 2003 racing dates at Wednesday's meeting. Nelson, who requested a 40-day 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.

The commission did not act on Nelson's request for dates, however, after determining that the contract Nelson signed with a recently formed horsemen's group, Inland Empire Horsemen's Association, is not valid because IEHA is not the legally recognized representative of Eastern Washington horsemen. IEHA, 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 IEHA cannot legally represent horsemen until it wins a formal election.

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

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

Nelson, who in May entered into a 10-year lease with an option to buy agreement with Appleway Leasing Corp., which has owned Playfair since 1981, 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 OPHRN.

"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."

WHRC chairman Pat LePley also confessed to being 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."

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. In explaining his request to extend the Emerald meeting by a week, track president Ron Crockett revealed that the track plans to stage the initial Washington Cup Day on Sept. 20. Crockett said the program will include six stakes for Washington-breds with a combined value of $300,000.