EUREKA HAS ITS UPS AND DOWNS : In a Vote Today, the People of Kansas Will Decide the Future of This Small Town . . . You Can Surely Bet on That

Times Staff Writer

Today, election day, the people of Kansas will vote on a constitutional amendment permitting pari-mutuel betting in the state.

If it passes, this small oil and farm center expects to be in clover.

Eureka has been the horse racing capital of Kansas for nearly a century--weird, since gambling on the nags on or off the track has always been illegal in Kansas.

The only track in all of Kansas where sanctioned horse races are regularly held is Eureka Downs, the pride and joy of Eureka, population 3,425 in south central Kansas.

Obviously it isn't your usual race track. There are no betting windows, no odds flashing on tote boards. Hard to imagine. A track with no betting. How can that be?

Ask anybody in Eureka how can you have a race track without any betting and they double over with laughter.

"It's strictly for the sport of it. You know, the sport of kings," snickered one old-timer. "Gambling? Who needs gambling?"

The Eureka Downs grandstand, which seats 2,500, is said to be the most animated in the country. Money and IOUs exchange hands after each race. Bookies wearing cowboy hats stand outside the grandstand, quoting their own odds and taking bets.

The law has always looked the other way.

"Gambling at Eureka Downs?" said Wayne C. (Rocky) Chambers, repeating the question with a quizzical look. "Human nature being what it is, I assume it does take place."

Chambers, 65, rancher and retired Air Force colonel, is president of the Greenwood County Fair Assn., the nonprofit organization that runs Eureka Downs.

Profits from the track are used to put on the county's annual fair. If pari-mutuel racing passes, the state and fair association will get a percentage of wagering.

Quarter horse races are run special weekends April through August at the track with a 21-day racing season.

Eureka Downs isn't near any populated centers. Wichita is 60 miles to the west; Emporia, 50 miles to the north.

For weeks, the lead editorial in the 118-year-old weekly Eureka Herald has urged readers to vote for pari-mutuel betting. Dick Classen, 45, editor-publisher of the paper, is also one of 27 members of the Greenwood County Fair Assn. board.

"Economics. That's the issue," contended a recent editorial. "Everyone benefits from pari-mutuel betting. It means growth. Agriculture and oil prices are on the decline. Industry is lacking at best. The population continues to dwindle. Pari-mutuel wagering sure can help."

The front page of a recent edition of the Herald carried an artist's conception of the new 3,500-seat, $3-million facility that will replace the present stands, if voters approve betting.

In the window at the newspaper's main entrance is a poster proclaiming the following benefits of pari-mutuel racing:

"Statistics show pari-mutuel wagering provides tax relief, boosts retail sales, creates jobs, increases property values, promotes better community service, expands entertainment. It does not increase crime or attract undesirable elements so long as it is a nonprofit ownership track."

Classen insists that there is no conflict of interest with his being editor-publisher of the local paper and a member of the board of directors of the state's only horse track.

Others on the board include a woman who teaches home economics at the local high school, a feed-store owner, bank president, attorneys, merchants, farmers, ranchers, oilmen, none of whom receive any income from the track. Chambers, the board president, also receives no remuneration.

"There are three constitutional amendments on the ballot: to permit Kansas to bet on horses, to buy a drink in a public place and to purchase a Kansas lottery ticket," Classen said.

Townspeople here expect that betting at the track will create jobs, will mean new motels and restaurants in Eureka, will be the best thing that happened to the area's flat economy in years.

The Rev. Phyllis J. Garrett, 60, pastor of Eureka's First United Methodist Church, admits she is torn by the issue.

"Most of the people in town favor pari-mutuel betting," she said. "They are hoping it will bring more people to Eureka and do something for our economy. I am on the board of the chamber of commerce, and the chamber is for it.

"But I don't believe in gambling," she said.

The Rev. Richard Taylor, 62, of Topeka, president of Kansas For Life At Its Best, Inc.!, heads the state-wide campaign against all three constitutional amendments. His group printed and distributed thousands of bumper stickers urging, "Vote no," followed by either a horse, a lottery ticket or a wine glass.

Taylor has been speaking throughout the state for months against the evils of liquor, lottery tickets and betting on horses. "When a track is running, consumer dollars normally spent on Main Street are lost at the track," he said. "People blow installment money, rent money, food money betting on the horses."

The minister, however, holds out little hope for defeating the three proposals.

"It will be a sad day for Kansas," he said. "Right now, Kansas has the least per-capita consumption of liquor in the country, except for Utah. Kansas has less than half the alcoholics as the national average. I fear what will happen in this state following the Nov. 4 election," the minister lamented.

Groups in Wichita, Kansas City and Hutchinson have expressed interest in starting race tracks, but the people here believe their track, which already has a reputation for being one of the fastest in the nation, will be a success right from the start.

"It will take other places at least two years to get going," Chambers said. "Horse racing is a grand old tradition in Eureka, and it will continue to be. Now, at long last, if the vote goes our way, people will be able to legally bet on the races. They won't have to be hypocrites any longer."

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