A Spokane institution returns, when the horses line up in the starting gates at Playfair on Saturday

B y P i a K. H a n s e n & & stuff & & & &

Polar Angel is casually gazing over the half-door of her stall. The four-year-old gray mare is chewing her hay, checking out the activity around the stables and dreaming. Her ears pricked, she dreams of laurels to come and trophies flashing in the sun. But before she gets to pursue that dream, she has to get through her first start, on Saturday night, when Playfair reopens. And there are about 600 other thoroughbreds and Arabian horses at Playfair's barns dreaming the exact same dream, as the anticipation is building among trainers, jockeys and owners as well.

"We are just real excited about the track opening up again. There's been a lot of heartache among the trainers and the owners the last couple of years while it's been closed around here," says Tom Blaine, trainer, breeder, horse owner, and also Playfair's assistant to the general manager.

When Playfair closed for racing in 1995, a lot of owners simply couldn't afford to keep their horses -- they 'dropped them,' as in selling them for the highest bid or retiring them to pasture or use as trail horses. But the horses that were just foals then, or barely ready to race as two-year-olds, are now eager to hit the track.

"So what you are looking at for this first meet is a lot of older horses who are just getting around to their first start," says Blaine. "That's a bit unusual, they usually start racing when they are two, but try looking at it this way instead: there's going to be a lot of well rested and sound horses ready to race on Saturday."

Playfair held its first races in 1901, while the area that is now the parking lot was the Spokane County Fairgrounds. In 1935, the track got its name; Spokane architect Kirtland Cutter even designed the grandstand. Several new additions have been made to the stand since then, but the track is still mostly the same: five-eighths of a mile, or five furlongs.

"Since this year's meet is going to go real late -- last day is December 17 -- we're going to have to take real good care of the track. It's sand, but there's dirt added to it and later when it gets cold we may be adding salt to keep it from freezing," says Blaine. "Yeah, it'd be nice to be at the races on the Fourth of July, but the Racing Commission won't allow us to overlap with Emerald Downs in Seattle."

There are a lot of politics and money involved in deciding who gets to race when and for how long, and angry words have flown across the Cascades in recent years.

"When things get tough, like they have been around here, it's like people get into this philosophical rut where they think nothing can work out," says Jay Healy, president of the Organization for Preservation of Horse Racing in the Northwest (OPHRN). "But look at the barns now. People can't wait to get going. And what's different this time around is the horse people are running the front side as well."

Traditionally, racetracks have a front side, which is where the betting and concession business takes place, and where the administration resides. The backside is the barns, where the trainers, owners, breeders and jockey's rule. In order to get Playfair going again, the track has broken down this division, so basically the horse people are in charge of everything.

"Sure, there's always some animosity between the two sides, and there were a lot of horse people saying, 'Oh, that's gonna be so easy running the front side,' and all that," says Healy. He adds with a chuckle: "But it's hard running the front side as well. The learning curve has been very steep. That's the thing about horse people, you know, you ask anyone around the barn and they all have 1,200 different ways of training a horse, and they are all real independent. But we have to get them to work together to pull this off."

At the Turf Club, the dining room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the track, things do seem to be pretty well under control as the staff is busy cleaning tables, washing glasses and laying out crisp linen tablecloths. Old photos of long gone horses such as Cocolalla Kid, Sweet Time Miss and a steel gray named Jupiter Jack, reaching across the finish line in impeccable style, grace the wall behind the betting windows. Looks like Playfair's last 'hay day' was back in the '80s.

"Well, we've lost a lot of young people during the closing. Look around the barns, there's hardly a trainer younger than 50," says Blaine. "The goal is to have racing year round, and we'd like to use the track for different equestrian events, like dressage or jumping, too. I think people will come, it's just great to get horse racing back to Spokane."

Playfair Race Course offers live horse racing for the first time in five years on Saturday, Sept. 16, at 4:45 pm. Racing will continue every Monday, Wednesday and Sunday through Dec. 17. There'll be races on Saturdays Oct. 7 and Nov. 4 as well. Playfair is on N. Altamont and E. Main, just off Sprague. Call: 534-0101 or visit www.playfair racing.com

Win a race horse

"We want to get some more people interested in racing," says Tom Blaine, Playfair's assistant to the general manager, "so on opening night, we are going to give one horse away to 10 people. All they have to pay is a $15 owner's license and some insurance, so about $30."

It costs nothing to enter the raffle, and the 10 people who win will form a consortium, under the name Millennium Stables, and get a free ride on their new horse for two months. Keeping a horse in full training at Playfair usually runs about $22 a day, including feed to the tune of 20 to 30 pounds of hay a day and 12 to 16 pounds of grain. The minimum purse in Playfair's races will be $2,500, with percentages paid to the 10 first horses across the finish line, so the team of winners can parlay their new horse into a few bucks if they're lucky.

"They get a 60-day window to see what racing is all about," says Blaine, "but then after that, the meter starts ticking.

"After that, they can, of course, sell the horse or their share or whatever they want to do with their individual one-tenth. But we hope they stick around."

-- Pia K. Hansen

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