by Pia K. Hansen
It doesn't even smell like horses anymore. The barns are empty, and the half-doors to the stalls are left randomly open or closed, swinging on hinges nobody will ever grease again. On the backside -- in the room where the jockeys used to weigh in before the races -- old silks are piled in plastic bins, lined up against the wall. The caf & eacute; is closed. Weeds and puddles line the parking lot through which many winners, and even more losers, have trotted over the last 100 years. The gates are locked with a chain and padlock, and a sign reads "No Trespassing."
As if it isn't depressing enough that no horses have raced at Playfair Racetrack since December 2000, now it looks like the track itself will be demolished.
"Yes, it's sad. We believe it's the oldest track west of the Mississippi," says Brad Pring, whose family has owned Playfair since 1981. "Horse racing has been very good to our family. We have our own stable, and in 2000, while there were still races at Playfair, we had the horse of the year."
The Pring family also owns Appleway Automotive in the Spokane Valley.
What was to become Playfair Racetrack held its first races in 1901. A report completed by Eastern Washington University's archaeological and historical services in connection with a recent light rail study establishes that the extant grandstand was designed and built by famous Spokane architects Kirtland Cutter and Karl Malmgren in 1904, then expanded in 1908. Back then, what's currently the parking lot served as the Spokane Fairgrounds. As the fair grew, so did the interest in horse races.
"Horse racing has had its ups and downs -- it was down during the Depression, then up during the '50s," says Steve Emerson of EWU's archaeological and historical services. "In the '60s or '70s, they put the metal cladding on [Playfair's] grandstand. Some argue that it's detracting from the appearance of the original structure. Of that, you can mostly just see some awnings."
So it may not be pretty, but that doesn't change the fact that it's more than 100 years old. Playfair, however, isn't listed on either the National Register of Historic Buildings and Places or on the statewide registry. Moreover, there's no nonprofit organization out there to make noise about what happens to the track.
That's why Playfair may end up being the site for the proposed wastewater treatment plant.
A State Environmental Policy Act document filed with the State Department of Ecology concerning the proposed Spokane County regional wastewater treatment plant explains that the Playfair Racetrack site was considered, along with the site of the former stockyards, as a location for the wastewater plant. Playfair was originally eliminated from consideration in 2002, but is now being reevaluated because it's for sale and no longer being redeveloped as a racetrack. The document also says the Playfair site will better accommodate wastewater flow from the city of Spokane; furthermore, the old stockyards may not be available to meet the required construction schedule.
The proposed plant will provide treatment of approximately 10 million gallons of wastewater every day. It may be expanded to handle 30 million gallons a day. It's needed to complete the County's program for reducing the number of septic tanks located above the Spokane aquifer as well as to handle a persistent stormwater overflow problem at the current plant.
"I just can't believe that. It is such a shame to tear down that facility and build a wastewater treatment plant there? What a shame," says Jan Bosquette with the Inland Northwest Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Organization for the Preservation of Horseracing in the Northwest. "I don't understand why the city has never gotten behind the track. It brought so much income into the area -- the blacksmiths, the hotel rooms, the restaurants. Not to mention that many of the people who take care of the horses aren't employable anywhere else. It's such a shame."
Horse Trading -- Since 1989, when the Pring family stopped operating the track, at least five different organizations have tried to keep the racetrack going.
The last person in charge was Eric Nelson, of Las Vegas, Nev.
"He had a lot of grandiose ideas," says Pring. "They could have worked out, I guess, but his ability to put anything together with the state, the horsemen and the track just wasn't there. He stepped out in the [early part of] 2003."
Restrictions on betting and simulcasting of races from other tracks made it even harder to keep the track afloat. Many tracks have added slot machines and other casino-style games, but that never happened at Playfair.
However, one of the biggest obstacles to keeping the track viable appears to have been the Washington State Horse Racing Commission, which is located in Olympia and believed to favor just one track: Emerald Downs in Auburn.
The Racing Commission is in charge of assigning season schedules to the various tracks in the state -- they don't overlap so that horse owners get the best possible shot at running their horses throughout the year -- but horse owners in Spokane feel they have been continuously shortchanged. The last season ran from September to December -- not exactly during prime horse racing weather.
One might be surprised to find that the current chair of the Racing Commission is none other than local civic leader Hartley Kruger. Getting a Spokanite to head up the Racing Commission made little difference for Playfair, however.
"Yes, it's a fair assessment that Playfair has had a difficult time getting a good season and good dates," says Kruger. "No, it's not like Emerald Downs just gets away with everything. But Emerald Downs is the principal track of the state, and it is located in the principal population area."
Kruger doesn't seem to think a lot can be changed about the racing season and dates. "It's a difficult time for horse racing in our area. I live here. I'm very sorry as a resident of this community to see horse racing go away," he says. "I hope at some point in time somebody will put on the capital to make the track work."
But it will soon be demolished? "Well, that doesn't mean the end to horse racing in Spokane," says Kruger.
So someone could just build a new track? "Well, yes, someone could," he concluded.
End of an Era -- Visitors pulling into Playfair's parking lot are greeted with a sign reading "Playfair, a winning tradition," but on this rainy Tuesday afternoon it looks more like the end of a tradition. Heavy equipment is already lined up in the parking lot at the same time as Pring talks about his family's commitment to the track.
"My father, Jack Pring, always loved horse racing, and he is the one reason that Playfair has been around for this long," says Pring. "He kept it going all through the '90s. He spent a lot of time on the backside, growing up, and when he found out the track was being sold as an industrial park, he got the family together and said, 'They can't sell my country club.' He bought it within 10 minutes -- but it took a lot longer to get the financing together."
Bosquette trained horses at Playfair together with her husband Jerry -- who died three years ago -- since the '50s.
"I've raced here since 1957. I was, like, 18 years old back then, and we've been here every year since," she says. "In December of 2000 was the last time we had horses there, at the last live meet. And now I'm stuck with a bunch of young horses that are hard to sell until they've been proven, and I have to send them somewhere else to do that."
Bosquette believes Playfair was never developed to its full potential. "I always felt like the facility was under-utilized. It's a huge facility with lots of parking. They could have other equestrian events there, or rodeos," she says. "But it's never really been promoted. What would it take to save it? Well, someone would have to make a deal with Mr. Pring, and that's probably hard to do."
If anyone out there is up for the challenge of running a racetrack, it's time to step up to the plate.
"We have scheduled an auction to sell off furniture, pictures, mirrors, railing, betting signs -- everything you can think of," says Pring. "We had the museum come through here first and pick what they wanted, but everything else is up for sale."
Among the items is the starting gate, which Pring says is one of the first automated starting gates in the entire country.
At this point, can anything be done to save Playfair?
"Someone would have to step forward and give us something we can work with. The auction is the first step -- then we are geared toward demolition," says Pring. "The track hasn't been sold yet -- I guess you'll just have to believe that it's never too late."
The Playfair auction is scheduled for Thursday, March 4, beginning at 9 am.
Publication date: 02/26/04