Photo by Ted Shorack

And They’re Off!

Horse racing ended at Portland Meadows in 2019 but is entering the back stretch in southern Oregon

Racing programs and betting tickets flapped in a stiff breeze at Grants Pass Downs in July as several dark bay and chestnut thoroughbreds reached the starting gate for the first of eight races on the final day of the spring and summer season at the only commercial horse racing track in Oregon

A crowd in boots and cowboy hats, young Latino families and some folks casually dressed in shorts and flip-flops, watched from the tall grandstand and from tables and chairs underneath. Most kept to the shade in the nearly 100 degree heat. 

The race horses sprung out of the gate  at the start, and a low rumble settled across the grounds as they came down the straightaway of the freshly groomed dirt track. Scattered cheers of support rang out from the crowd, but most watched the first few hundred yards of the 5 1/2 furlong race in quiet anticipation. A crescendo of excited screams and yelling surged among spectators at the final turn. A Kentucky-bred mare named Miss Gunny narrowly crossed the finish line first. 

Some had eagerly put money on a horse without much consideration other than the thrill of it and potential to win a little cash. A gruff older man sitting at a table near the finish line said he was waiting for the last races of the day to place his bet.

Travis Boersma, co-founder of the ubiquitous coffee drive-through chain Dutch Bros, poured millions into redeveloping the once-modest racetrack at the Josephine County Fairgrounds into Grants Pass Downs. He now holds the only commercial horse racing license in the state. The backwards-hat-wearing city native and his company, TMB Racing, set out to keep the sport alive in Oregon when Portland Meadows, the historic venue built in the mid-1940s, permanently closed in 2019. The track in North Portland was later demolished.

Daily wagers at Grants Pass Downs and purses for race winners have steadily climbed in a two-year period. The track has gained notoriety for early successes, but the sport in Oregon and across the country faces a number of challenges, including a vocal opposition over the treatment of horses and poor attendance in the stands. Their plans to draw spectators and generate more revenue with a type of betting machine have worried some tribal leaders who fear direct competition with casinos. Seven Feathers Casino Resort is about 45 miles north of the track. 

Boersma did not respond to a request to comment from Eugene Weekly for this story. 

The first races at Grants Pass Downs, after upgrades and commercial licensing in 2019, were held as racehorse deaths were drawing intense scrutiny in California. More than 40 horses died at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles over the course of that year. The fatalities resulted in widespread pressure for that racetrack to be shut down while it investigated the causes for so many injuries leading to euthanization. Activists held protests outside the track during the Breeders’ Cup.

The next year, federal prosecutors indicted more than two dozen veterinarians and trainers from around the country for administering performance-enhancing drugs to racehorses. Some involved in the widespread doping scandal have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the scheme. 

Boersma committed Grants Pass Downs to prioritizing safety for jockeys and horses, but some injuries are a near certainty given the realities of racing. Three horses were euthanized at the track during the 17-day spring and summer season. Their injuries included a fracture of the biaxial sesamoid bone in the leg, broken vertebra and two ribs, and a fractured scapula, according to Tom Everman, senior state veterinarian at the Oregon Racing Commission. 

Randy Evers, president of Grants Pass Downs, says the racetrack is below the national average for horse injuries that result in deaths. “We spend a lot of money to make sure the horses are safe,” he says.

Jack McGrail, executive director of the racing commission, says safety records should be evaluated over the long-term. 

“We have so few races annually that an individual race meet or even race year does not provide a sufficient sample size in order to draw any conclusions,” McGrail says of horse racing statewide, including smaller meets at county fairs. 

 Everman says the weather conditions were often ideal and the track surface was well groomed during the season of races.

 “In my opinion, no conclusions can be drawn from such unrelated and unusual incidents,” he says about the three deaths. “When considering racing related injuries, it would be advisable to consider statistics per 10,000 starts, or even a larger sample size, before assigning a causal relationship.” 

Boersma’s stewardship and renovation of the track included adding a safety rail aimed at protecting jockeys and horses. The aluminum inside railing is designed to absorb the impact of a horse or rider in the event of a collision. The rails were often made of steel pipes in the past. It also has a three-foot wide plastic surface on top should a rider be thrown over their horse. 

The death of a 29-year-old jockey at the Crooked River Roundup in Prineville in mid July reverberated throughout the racing community. Officials with the racing commission were unsure whether a safety rail at that track would have prevented the rider’s death. The horse made its debut at Grants Pass.

Boersma widened the track in southern Oregon to allow for more horses and to reduce the potential for entanglements. He also cushioned the track with several hundred tons of sand and hired a well known superintendent to oversee surface conditions. A veterinarian examines horses prior to reaching the starting gate, Evers says, checking for discomfort that could prove debilitating during the race. Thirteen horses were scratched from competing during the most recent season after pre-race examinations.

During the season of 138 races, five horses tested at slightly higher than permitted levels of phenylbutazone or “bute,” an anti-inflammatory pain reliever widely used within the industry. 

Prohibited substances were not detected, Everman says. “The stewards took appropriate remedial action in all these cases.” 

At Grants Pass on the last day of the season, the windows for placing bets on races were often swarmed before post time. Between races the crowd looked over their racing programs, drank Coors Light or iced coffee from Dutch Bros, and counted out wrinkled dollar bills for their next wager. Spectators flocked to the track during Fourth of July weekend to watch the last races of the summer. It was the first time full capacity resumed since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, the crowds at horse racing events around the country are dwindling, as most are broadcast and placing a bet online is an easy alternative. Off-track betting on horse races is available at nearly a dozen bars, restaurants and bowling alleys, including Emerald Lanes in Eugene and Ten Down Bowling in Roseburg. 

Most of the races at Grants Pass Downs appear on the cable network TVG. Evers says races are held on Monday and Tuesday to avoid being overshadowed by larger venues around the country during the weekend. Wagers, also known as the “handle,” placed on races in and outside of the state totaled more than $8 million at OTB locations from January through June this year, according to the racing commission. 

The handle for races during the spring and summer season at Grants Pass totaled nearly $7 million. The daily average was more than $400,000. The purses averaged about $60,000 each race day. Evers hopes to eventually dole out $120,000 per day. The track dispersed more than $1 million in purses for the 138 races. 

It’s still a challenge when looking ahead, Evers, the president at Grants Pass, says. Most events, other than the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, struggle to maintain consistent attendance. 

“We would love for people to come from around the country, but right now that’s a little bit of a dream,” he says. 

Boersma is building a 35,000-square-foot gaming and entertainment center adjacent to the track that will likely compete with tribal casinos for gambling dollars and can offset costs for racing operations. A short drive from the racetrack, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians operates Seven Feathers Casino Resort. 

Named The Flying Lark after a famous thoroughbred from Oregon, it could open as early as this December and boast up to 250 “historic horse racing” or HHR machines, a betting terminal that some consider too similar to slots. They were approved by state lawmakers in 2013. 

“That’s the economic engine that’s going to save horse racing,” Evers says about the Flying Lark. “It’s very expensive to maintain the track and the personnel you need.”

The historic horse racing machines allow visitors to bet on races that have already taken place. The horses and race winners are obscured from players when placing their wager. The video terminals are found at racetracks nationwide in various states and were offered at Portland Meadows. 

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that some HHR machines did not fit the state definition of pari-mutuel wagering, which pools bets together and is the widespread method in horse racing. A bill signed into law this year adjusted language to expressly legalize HHR machines. 

During the 2021 legislative session, gambling policy in Oregon was a frequent topic. State lawmakers attempted to create a task force that would make regulatory recommendations moving forward. They also sought to halt new lottery games that can be played on mobile devices or computers. The bill failed to make it out of the Joint Ways and Means committee.

The governor, however, signed Senate Bill 165, which requires wagering on historic horse racing to be done at the track and prohibits it on a mobile phone or other electronic device including computers. Grants Pass Downs lobbied for a section of the bill that allows  fixed payments to various horse racing industry associations and the racing commission rather than a percentage allocation from HHR machines. They argued revenue collected from the machines is unpredictable with slim margins compared to betting on live horse racing or at OTBs.  

Advocates concerned about problem gambling were in favor of amendments restricting wagering on historic races to machines at Grants Pass Downs and not online. 

The amendments were important to state Rep. Marty Wilde as well, who is chair of the House Committee on General Government, which conducted public hearings on the bill. 

“The ones in person I’m a little less concerned about,” he says about HHR machines. “If you have to go somewhere to do it, there are staff theoretically monitoring it. And you can’t do it all night necessarily.”

The Flying Lark is located next to the parking lot of the racetrack. In July, the site was fenced off and filled with heavy-duty construction equipment. The center is expected to include a sports bar, a family restaurant and a banquet area. Grants Pass Downs will open its fall season on Sept. 20 and end on Nov. 9.

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