Dayton Days: What’s in its future?
November 21, 2019
DAYTON–One of the hallmarks of southeastern Washington up until about ten years ago was the novelty of its horse-racing circuit.
Dayton, Waitsburg and Walla Walla stood apart from communities around the nation which generally boast an annual parade and rodeo or some-such community showcase. Each town has its own exciting, worthwhile and significantly meaningful celebration, yes, but there’s nothing like horses flying down the home stretch, cheered on by wild-eyed bettors.
Just as teens in the 1950s and 1960s prowled around town in their hot rods, settling their scores on a straight stretch out of town, local Native Americans raced their ponies on Dayton’s Main Street. This evolved to a half-mile oval track, two covered grandstands, pari-mutuel wagering and hundreds of people streaming to Dayton for a sunny spring weekend of fun.
That’s not all. For decades, young girls dreamed of riding in the parade as a queen or princess, then, one day, their dreams come true. Local civic groups funded scholarships and community projects through the sales of hamburgers and beverages at Dayton Days. Think of the exponential benefits to individuals, their families and the community from that alone.
Local lads and lassies watched their parents volunteer and contribute to the event and the community, learning by example. Some tagged along with their mom or dad and eventually stepped into important volunteer roles themselves.
Dayton’s Senator Hubert F. Donohue worked in Olympia to promote the causes of the local tracks with the “Donohue Fund,” money earmarked for maintenance of small, Class C tracks. The funds helped each track improve its facilities.
It was a weekend where people came to town, exchanged their hard-earned dollars for fun and frivolity, and then went away until next year. Local people who worked behind the scenes were exhausted when it was over but happy because the races were part of the community rhythm and an important fund-raising cog in the machine.
The races operated in the black for decades, and with financial help from Olympia, were able to make improvements. A decline began in the 1980s and wagering slowly tapered off until the local meets were barely breaking even, if that. Still, people in the local communities contributed as needed to keep the tradition going.
Well, things have changed.
After the 2010 meets, Dayton Days, Waitsburg’s Days of Real Sport and Walla Walla’s Spring Race Meet buttoned things up, leaving the pieces in place for next year. News came in December that there would not be racing the following spring, ending 92 years of horse racing in Dayton. High insurance premiums, scarce state funds and competition for the gambling dollar were factors. No remedies have been devised in the intervening years, and a return to local horse racing seems unlikely.
In 2018, a few local people called a meeting of the dormant Dayton Days, Inc. organization, and decided to pursue the possibility of bring back horse racing. It seems owners and trainers have been lamenting the lack of smaller tracks to start young horses on, and the “pipeline” of horses to race at the big tracks isn’t very full.
Meetings with legislators were held and correspondence was exchanged. The bottom line, as usual, is money: if the community can pony up the funds, the State Racing Commission will grant racing dates. Some estimate up to $50,000 a day.
While those avenues were explored, Dayton Days, Inc. elected to hold a rodeo, which it did last May. After the traditional Dayton Days Parade, which has continued in spite of the absence of horse racing, folks could stick around for rodeo action.
The Dayton Days, Inc. officers and members met last week to discuss the upcoming season. Committee members are pursuing establishing a Memorial Day meet which would be a season-opener for the Indian Relay circuit, and a rodeo is also a possibility. After long discussion, the group reached an impasse, and set a General Membership Meeting for this coming Monday, November 25, 6:30 p.m. at the Youth Building, to discuss potential future events and possibly, the future of the organization itself.
We believe Dayton Days, Inc. is a valuable, longstanding community institution that should continue to provide some kind of Memorial Day event. That event may not include pari-mutuel horse racing—it’s a longshot that funds will be earmarked for the small, southeastern Washington tracks. Other possibilities are a rodeo and hosting an Indian Relay Race.
What will the future be for Dayton Days, Inc.? We encourage people interested in one of Dayton’s longest-running weekend events to show up and get involved.