Sun Downs ready to open the gate on another racing season

By Jeff Morrow for TCAJOB

Nancy Sorick is usually pretty busy this time of year. But this year that sense of urgency is missing.

Sorick heads up the nonprofit Tri-City Horse Racing Association, which will run the 2016 horseracing meet at Sun Downs at the Benton Franklin Fairgrounds. Racing will take place April 23, 24, 30, May 1, 7 and 8.

Highlights will include major stakes races and a celebration of the Kentucky Derby Saturday, May 7, where fans can place wagers on the sport’s biggest race.

Sorick has a little less stress running the event this year, because the TCHRA signed a three-year contract with Benton County to hold the spring horseracing meet at Sun Downs.

“The past five years, it’s been a year-to-year deal,” said Sorick. “So it’s a yearly hassle no more.”

That’s good for the fans, who have always showed their loyalty by attending the races, Sorick said. And it’s great news for the horse owners and trainers.

“Our supporters are there regardless,” said Sorick. “They’ve supported us for over 30 years. More importantly, the horsemen know we’ll be here. Their lives are patterned from track to track.”

It’s not easy being in the horse racing business. Over the last 30 years, horse racing tracks throughout the Northwest, including those in Spokane, Yakima, Walla Walla, Dayton and Waitsburg have all had to shut down.

And just last year, Les Bois Park in Boise, Idaho closed its doors.

Emerald Downs in Auburn, Portland Meadows in Portland, Ore. and Sun Downs in Kennewick are only remaining tracks in the Pacific Northwest where hooves still fly across the dirt.

This is the 29th year the TCHRA has held a spring race meet at Sun Downs.

Back in 1987, a local group of horsemen, owners and trainers approached Benton County about taking over running the track. The county didn’t want to be in the horse racing business anymore.

“We went to the county and offered to take over the track, paying the bills with a $40,000 trust account,” said Sorick, the only original member of the nine-person TCHRA still involved in the annual meet.

During the meet, the TCHRA employs 50 to 60 people, from program sellers, to people working the wagering machines, to those working the gate.

The last independent economic impact statement for Sun Downs — done in 2005 — reported that horse racing brought in $1.9 million into the community through hotel/motel stays, restaurants, feed stores, grocery stores and farming.

However, that was when the meet covered 10 days over five weekends. Although the meet has been reduced to three weekends, the economic impact is still a big contributor to the local economy.

In addition to the races, the TCHRA also runs the training facility out at the track. Beginning Feb. 1, owners and trainers from throughout the Northwest bring their horses to the track to work out.

Shorty Martin, Sun Downs’ racing secretary who sets the racing lineups during the meet, spends a lot of time at the training facility trying to get the 2-year-olds to learn how to start out of a gate.

Sorick said in March the training facility was housing 100 racehorses out in the backside stables. A year ago, there were just 50. For horsemen, Sun Downs is the place to be, said Martin.

“I think we’ll have more horses here racing this meet,” Martin said.

Sorick agreed.

“Although racing ends in May, we have the track until the end of June,” said Sorick. “We’re expecting a number to stay here after the meet.”

Trainers previously would have loaded up their horses and headed to Boise after the Sun Downs meet. But since Boise has closed, the trainers will keep boarding and training horses at Sun Downs until June, when the Oregon fair circuit starts. That means more revenue for the Association and the entire area.

Sorick likes to see the horseracing meet as the big kickoff to the local sports scene.

“We’re the first game in town,” she said. “Then the fair and Water Follies happen later in the summer.”

Sorick has her usual desires for a great meet.

“Have a good, clean race meet,” she said. “And a lot of horses.”

Having good concessions, and keeping the grounds and grandstands clean is a source of pride for her.

“You’re asking people to spend their money,” said Sorick. “They should be made to be comfortable. I know the fans will be there.”

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