Anthony, Eureka will host no pari-mutuel races this summer

Jockeys push their horses to the finish at Eureka Downs last Saturday July 13, 2006.
Jockeys push their horses to the finish at Eureka Downs last Saturday July 13, 2006. The Wichita Eagle

More than a century of racing tradition in Kansas has died.

Every summer since 1904, races at Anthony Downs have drawn visitors and pumped economic vitality into Harper County.

Most summers since 1872, racing at Eureka Downs has lured visitors and dollars into the Flint Hills town.

Neither track will have official races this summer because of a lack of funding. Whether they ever reopen for pari-mutuel racing depends on what happens to legislation stalled in Topeka.

The two small tracks have relied in recent years on state tax money from simulcasting wagers at Wichita Greyhound Park and the Woodlands dog and horse track near Kansas City. But those tracks have closed, and that money has disappeared.

Anthony Downs, where racing has had an annual economic impact of $800,000 to $1 million countywide, would have hosted its 106th consecutive meet this summer. It is 80 miles southwest of Wichita.

Its closing isn't a surprise, but it still bothers Dan Bird, president of the Anthony Fair Association. The 105th meet last year, held over six days, made a profit for the first time in seven years, he said. The meet has attracted an average of 5,000 people annually.

"I'm pulling my hair out," Bird said. "I've been president for 20 years and I hate to be the guy sitting in the chair that lets this thing die. But there's only so much you can do."

Rita Osborn, general manager of Eureka Downs, said the track may be used for a few training races, to prepare horses for races in Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa. But there will be no official horse racing at the track in 2010.

Osborn estimated racing has more than a $4 million economic impact on the area.

"We figure it's just as good as having a convention come to town over several weekends," she said.

"When the benefits that horse racing brings to a small community like ours are suddenly taken away, it hurts everyone and is impossible to replace," Osborn said.

Loss of larger tracks

Owners of larger race tracks in Kansas closed them after claiming they needed a larger percentage of slot machine revenue to be profitable. The state's expanded gambling law caps their share of the revenue at 40 percent.

A bill pending in the Legislature would raise the cap to 58 percent. It passed out of a Senate committee, but has yet to be considered on the floor during the wrap-up session.

Wichita Greyhound Park, where slots would have to be approved by Sedgwick County voters, was eliminated from the bill.

Under the bill, Anthony and Eureka would split 1 percent of revenue from slots, allowing them to survive.

If the bill doesn't pass, "there is little chance we will see another official live horse race here again," Eureka's Osborn said.

A 'sense of doom'

For their communities, the loss of the race meets represents a change in a way of life.

Races in Eureka usually ended July 4. In flush times, when there were 20 or more race dates, races sometimes started in May.

"It would be just right around the corner if we were going to have it this year," said Eureka Mayor Mike Pitko, a retired history teacher. "It's been such a part of the community. There's a lot of history involved.

"It's going to be kind of a big blow to the community."

The town has seen its races slip away during the last several years as the larger tracks suffered.

"There's just kind of a sense of pending doom." Pitko said.

When the Woodlands closed in 2008, it had about $1 million left to split between the Anthony and Eureka tracks. That enabled them to get through last summer's races. Now, the money is gone.

In Anthony, which still is rebuilding its downtown after a fire that destroyed nearly an entire block last July, the loss of the race season is another tough blow.

"For a small town, it's just devastating to lose something you've had for so long," said Gwen Warner, executive director of the Anthony Chamber of Commerce.

People come from California and other states for the meet, she said. Area motels are filled for six weeks with horse people, trainers and others involved in preparations for the meet.

"All those people eat here and shop here," Warner said.

Also, much of the town is involved with the races. People work as vendors, ticket takers and grounds people during the event.

Bird said he thought of raising the $150,000 to $200,000 it takes to put on a meet, but he knew he'd face liability issues without the state's approval of wagering.

The Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission said the tracks may hold non-pari-mutuel races on their own, but any betting at the tracks during those races would be illegal.

Bird said he isn't giving up on resuming horse and dog racing at Anthony Downs next year.

"It's the biggest thing for the community that we have going, and we lost it," he said. "We've got to find a way to get it back."

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