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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Portland Meadows' Fate Perhaps Hinges on Tomorrow

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Tue, Apr 16, 2013 at 11:29 AM

Track.jpg

Long-time North Portland institution Portland Meadows has been flagging now for a long time.

The horse track reliably loses money each season. Its bid to draw fresh blood to the track this summer worked in part, but wasn't remotely profitable, as I reported in the Oregonian earlier this year. And there's now some question whether its owners—Ontario-based horse fanatics at the Stronach Group—will shutter the track.

That might, in part, be determined by a hearing in Salem tomorrow, as two bills before the House Business and Labor Committee are slated for a work session. House Bill 2613—a measure Portland Meadows General Manager Will Alempijevic sees as a sure path to financial prosperity—would allow the track to install "instant racing" machines. The slot machine-like devices let gamblers bet on virtual races, using actual results from past contests.

The other measure, House Bil 2614, would increase the ratio of money scraped from online bets that goes to the Oregon Racing Commission, which then reinvests that money in higher purses and marketing.

I asked Alempijevic whether the bills are going to determine whether or not Portland Meadows, in operation since 1946, hangs around for another season. He's not quite saying.

"These bills are of the utmost importance to solidifying the future of racing in Oregon," Alempijevic wrote in an e-mail. "The industry is not looking for a handout but instead the industry is looking for ways to support ourselves and both bills will provide that opportunity.

"Portland Meadows’ parent company The Stronach Group has sustained significant financial losses as the operator of Portland Meadows and with justification, they have not committed to operations beyond PM’s current licensing period at this point."

Horse racing has its share of detractors, and hasn't gained many friends in light of recent coverage in the New York Times that painted a picture of unscrupulous owners and trainers willing to sacrifice their animals' safety for victory.

That's a lot of ugliness, but the folks in Portland's horse racing scene seem just as horrified by it as you might be, and the track has a lower incidence of injury than many.

More importantly, regardless of your feelings on the sport, horses are big business in Oregon, and Portland Meadows is at the center. A recent study [PDF], commissioned by lobbying group Future of Racing in Oregon (FROG), concluded Oregon's horse racing industry accounted for more than 1,000 jobs and $146 million in direct economic activity in 2010.

Lastly, and partially unrelated: Among the things I learned when reporting on this issue was that horses, when kept in their stalls, find the presence of goats somehow soothing. This is a not-uncommon sight on Portland Meadows' back stretch, and it's always great.

A silence, but a comfortable one, you know?

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