As a local non-profit society works toward renewal of its five-year agreement with the town of Osoyoos to operate the Desert Park equine facility, a South Okanagan entrepreneur waits in the wings, hoping the town might be persuaded to go with his grand vision or the park.
Johnny Aantjes, who recently sold his Penticton Speedway, says he is ready to invest upwards of half a million dollars in the facility, while the Desert Park Exhibition Society struggles to afford the maintenance of the facilities and equipment. Aantjes believes the facility is under-utilized and would like to broaden its mandate to include more entertainment and sports, both horse-related and otherwise.
Desert Park is located on the west bench just below the Osoyoos Golf Club and the Dividend Ridge subdivision.
At its core are five barns with total capacity for up to 150 horses. There is also the five-eighths-of-a-mile race track, suitable for thoroughbred racing and training, along with several training rings and corrals. The main revenue source for the park is the winter boarding and training of race horses from colder Canadian climates, brought to the Okanagan for the milder winters and the ability to train outdoors. There are about 100 thoroughbreds in residence right now, along with about 10 local area saddle horses who board year-round.
According to society president Rod Trites, this year’s relatively high number of winter boarders is due to some owners and trainers not being willing to go the US because of the Covid pandemic.
Trites has had two meetings with town officials toward renewal of the society’s five-year occupancy agreement with the town. He said the society’s focus is to continue and expand the equine operations. “We want to continue as an equine facility.”
The agreement with the town expires in December.
Community services director Gerald Davis said in a recent interview the town has no particular interest in changing management at Desert Park and is continuing with talks to re-negotiate the agreement. However, two members of the town council are interested in at least looking at other proposals to operate Desert Park. Councillor Jim King was a founding member of the society in 2011, before he was elected to council. Since becoming a member of council, he has been a voice for Desert Park and the society. In a recent interview, King said he has met with Aantjes twice and believes he has a good plan that would broaden operations at the park. “The timing could be right, because the contract does come up this year. … We could be looking at a number of proposals,” he said.
Mayor Sue McKortoff indicated she would also be amenable to looking at other ideas for operating the Desert Park. If Aantjes wants to apply in December, she said, “he is welcome to do so.”
It’s “definitely a possibility” that the town will issue a request for proposals later this year to operate the facility, she said.
In an interview, Aantjes said he is willing to invest between $250,000 and $500,000 on an indoor riding arena, up to $200,000 to upgrade and expand the current 11-site RV park, and about $40,000 to upgrade the barns. He described the facility as “under-utilized.” He would like to see the equine aspects of the park grow to include 4H clubs for kids along with rodeo and barrel racing events. Eventually, he said, “I think it would be possible to get some sort of horse racing back on the track.” There had been horse racing at Desert Park on and off since the early 1980s. But the last races were in 2017, as the sport has been in general decline and the BC racing circuit has all but vanished.
Aantjes said he would like to see concerts and other entertainment events in the infield, as well as large baseball and soccer tournaments.
The large infield of the track and the adjacent grand stand are town facilities and are not part of the society’s mandate. They are, however, available for recreational or entertainment events through agreement with the town. Aantjes said he would also like to open a branch of Feedway, the animal feed store he owns with branches in Penticton, Oliver and Keremeos.
A former mayor of Osoyoos and recently-resigned president of the society is one of Aantjes’ most vocal boosters. Tom Shields, who was mayor in the 1990s, said in an interview his proposal is “about as good as it gets for the town of Osoyoos. … It’s a win, win, win for everyone.” Shields said: “We need someone with energy and enthusiasm and money to get (Desert Park) headed in the right direction, which is to get (more) events at the park. …(Aantjes) has a good reputation. He took a near bankrupt auto racing track in Penticton and turned it into one of the two best such venues in BC.” He added that he sensed a negative feeling on the current board toward Aantjes. “It seemed that he was regarded as a threat.”
Shields was elected, along with Trites, to the seven-member board of the society last July and was named president.
In January, Shields resigned from the board over what Trites described as “differing visions” for the society. Trites was appointed president. He said that he and other board members have seen an early proposal that Aantjes made to the town. He said he offered Aantjes the chance to participate as a corporate sponsor of Desert Park, but “he declined.”
Meanwhile, the society and its employees continue to operate, maintain and, where possible, upgrade the equine facility, despite some recently-published reports of unhappy trainers and owners.
Trites said he met with some of the “disgruntled owners,” who, he said, had some ongoing differences with the on-site manager. Most of the complaints have involved the condition of the track as too dry for full-speed training of thoroughbreds. To address that issue, Davis said the town will attempt to have the water system turned on this week, ahead of the usual spring timetable. Trites said the staff is conducting a survey of owners, trainers and jockeys to get their perspectives on what, if any changes are needed.
Meanwhile, on Sunday afternoon a collection of staff and volunteers ventured onto the track with pitchforks and wheelbarrows to pick rocks from the sandy surface soil.