09/27/2002 12:00AM

Playfair talks still up in air


SEATTLE, Wash. - With the hearing for a license to operate Spokane's Playfair Race Course less than a month away, negotiations between prospective operator Eric Nelson and eastern Washington horsemen remain stalemated.

Jay Healy, president of Organization for the Preservation of Horse Racing in the Northwest, reported at a meeting of the Washington Horse Racing Commission here on Wednesday that his group has made no progress in securing a purse agreement with Nelson.

"Both sides are sticking to their positions," said Healy. "We're asking for the same deal we had with Lilac City, but Mr. Nelson is offering something else. As near as we can determine, what he is offering is much less than what we need to make it worthwhile to race."

The OPHRN contract with Lilac City Racing Association, which operated Playfair until it ran out of money in December of 2000, called for minimum purses of $2,500 funded by 5 percent of both live and simulcast wagering.

Nelson, a Las Vegas-based businessman who operates four card rooms in Washington, has insisted that his contract proposal will result in higher purses than those that prevailed in 2000. Nelson could not be reached by phone to elaborate on his proposal.

The Washington Horse Racing Commission has set the dates for a hearing on Nelson's application for a racing license at Oct. 22 and 23, beginning at 9 a.m. each day at the Red Path Hotel in Spokane. The commission will then hold a regular meeting at the same time and location on Oct. 24, when it could render a decision on the application.

It is unclear, however, whether a racing license can be granted to Nelson in the absence of a contract with the horsemen. Mike Lufkin, counsel for the racing commission staff, said the question is open to different legal interpretations and will ultimately have to be decided by the commission.

The application hearing, to be presided over by Wynne O'Brien Persons, an administrative law judge from Spokane, will include presentations from Nelson's organization (Cleopatra Downs), the OPHRN, Emerald Downs, and the Washington Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

A report in the Spokane Spokesman-Review suggested that Emerald will oppose the application, but Emerald president Ron Crockett disputed that.

"We are all in favor of racing at Playfair if it will be financially viable," said Crockett. "I just want to be assured that it can be profitable and survive, because we don't need another track failure in this state. Each time there is a failure, we lose money and the state loses credibility with other racing venues."

Crockett also said he does not favor Nelson's plan to offer simulcast wagering at Playfair before the track's initial live race meet in 2003.

"The legislative intent of our simulcast law is to foster live racing," he said. "I think a track should earn its right to simulcast by offering live racing first."

Court denies civil rights suit

A long-running lawsuit was decided in favor of the Oregon Racing Commission earlier this month when a U. S. District Court jury ruled that the commission did not violate the rights of Darrell and Vicki Lee when it banned them from Portland Meadows in March of 1993. The commission took its action after the Lees, both officers of the track's operating company, New Portland Meadows Inc., used funds dedicated to the purse account and the mutual clearing account to pay off other track obligations.

The Lees subsequently filed suit against the commission and its individual members, alleging that they individually and collectively acted in a retaliatory manner to violate the Lees' First Amendment rights. The jury found the defendants not guilty in a ruling issued on Sept. 13, and the charge was dismissed.

Barham leaving for Arizona post

Steve Barham, who has served as executive secretary for the Oregon Racing Commission since February of 1985, reported that he will leave that position to accept the post of associate coordinator for the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program. Barham will be one of two associate coordinators working under program director Doug Reed.

Barham said he will remain in his current position through the Portland Meadows opening on Oct. 19, then take a brief vacation before reporting to work at the University of Arizona, which will hold its annual Race Track Industry Symposium on Dec. 10-14.

* Catalogs are available for the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders' Association's fall mixed sale, to be held Oct. 20 in the M.J. Alhadeff Sales Pavilion at Emerald Downs. The sale, which replaces the traditional winter mixed sale in December, will offer 234 horses: 156 yearlings, 52 broodmares, 19 weanlings, four horses of racing age, and three stallions.