GRANTS PASS — Brenda Estes is among many to give the refurbished racing surface at Grants Pass Downs glowing reviews.

GRANTS PASS — Brenda Estes is among many to give the refurbished racing surface at Grants Pass Downs glowing reviews.

Estes, a Grants Pass native and fourth generation Oregonian, trained horses on the GP Downs 1/2-mile dirt oval throughout the winter and wetter than usual spring without missing a day because of track conditions.

That bodes well for the annual nine-day 2010 season that opens Saturday at the Josephine County Fairgrounds. A large contingent of horsemen from around the Northwest have converged in Southern Oregon for the next four weekends in quest of a portion of $250,000 in purse money.

The final three races during last year's opener and the entire card the following day were cancelled because of a freak June rain storm that made for an unsafe racing surface. Additionally, three horses had to be euthanized after suffering injuries during races in 2009.

These factors and a letter from the Oregon Racing Commission threatening approval of racing dates if a change wasn't made to the track surface were prominent in causing GP Downs officials to replace the track dirt last fall at the cost of about $200,000.

"They had been talking about replacing the track for four years," said Randy Evers, executive director of the ORC. "I thought they needed a little push to get it done. The letter wasn't meant to be mean spirited but a catalyst for them to replace the track."

Don Jackson, the so-called "Godfather" of horse racing in Southern Oregon, was aware of the problem for quite a few years and was the driving force behind the track refurbishing. Jackson got the project going with a donation of $70,000.

"It was something I was trying to get done for quite a long time," says Jackson, 84.

Through farmer and excavator Tom Marthaller, Jackson learned of some ideal soil on Dr. Jim Giesen's 80-acre farm near Finley Bend along the Rogue River outside of Grants Pass.

Years of flooding had deposited sandy loam soil in Giesen's pasture.

"You just can't get dirt real easy," says Jackson. "We had to get through the hurdles of different state agencies. The only way we could do it was to trade the dirt from the track."

An agreement was struck with Giesen and in late September Marthaller began hauling soil. It took the 67-year-old lifelong farmer eight days, using eight trucks to haul 600 loads containing 6,300 yards of soil back-and-forth. Marthaller laid a uniform 7-inches of compacted soil over the track. And Copeland Sand and Gravel generously completed the job with extensive grading and drainage work for less than cost.

"The silty loam has a cushion to it and is easy on a horse," says Jackson. "Everybody I spoke to about it thinks it's an excellent material. Now we can run when it rains."

Estes, an owner and trainer with a small stable of horses, concurs with Jackson's assessment. She says the track was busy with activity all winter — in the past the track was closed — because of the new surface.

"We would get those big downpours of rain and we could train every day and the track stayed good," says Estes, 37. "In previous years, we used to walk out there and slip and slide everywhere. Now there's great footing."

Estes has worked around race tracks since graduating from Hidden Valley High School in 1991. She became inspired to be a jockey when as a 12-year-old she viewed the races from the YMCA, which is next door to GP Downs. During her high school years, she was a fixture on the backside at the track and was mentored by former trainer and Grants Pass resident Melody Truitt.

"I was really into sports," says Estes, who was formerly Brenda Bacon. "I dropped everything to be around the race horses."

After graduating high school, Estes got her jockey's license at Longacres race track outside of Seattle. Then she took an offer to gallop horses at Santa Anita race track in Southern California. Estes worked eight years galloping horses for trainers such as Randy Winick and D. Wayne Lucas and was an assistant trainer.

On occasion when Estes visited Grants Pass she rode some races at GP Downs. She won the 1995 Inaugural Handicap aboard Cougar Martin in her final race as a jockey.

Estes worked as a clocker at Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows in northern California. She also operated a race horse rescue in Modesto, Calif., where homes were found for retired runners.

Estes returned to live in the Rogue Valley in 2005 to raise a family. She is married and has two young children.

"I got a wild hair and took in some race horses four years ago," says Estes. "I didn't think I was going to do this again. It's addicting."

Estes' horses won two races, finished second twice and third three times in last year's GP Downs meet.

Estes is so impressed with the racing surface that she envisions a further use: "We can make this a year-round training facility and bring in quite a bit of money."

Quite a testimonial for the refurbished track.

Track Tidbits

The average handle and attendance in 2009 were up from the previous season but losing one day and part of another due to rain cost the track's overall financial picture.

Last year's average daily handle was $50,563 (up 4 percent) and attendance was 2,336 (up 5 percent) but the end-of-season profit was $8,000 compared to $28,000 from the season before.

The jockey roster this year is loaded with three former leading jockeys returning — Joe Crispin, Nikeela Black and Luis Torres. Crispin who just rode here sparingly last season, will return on a full-time basis. Crispin won leading jockey in 2006. Torres and Black tied for most wins last year. Black won the title in 2007.Last year's leading trainer Bob Beckner has a big stable again this year. Beckner, who won the crown in 2005 and 2008, has nine horses on the opening-day card.Ruben Camacho was the big winner out of the $40,000 Oregon jockey bonuses given out last year. Camacho pocketed $6,809. Torres and Black were next with $6,243 and $6,064 respectively.Saturday's card will feature two stakes races — The Daily Courier Inaugural Handicap and the Mail Tribune Stakes.

In the $4,300 Mail Tribune Stakes for quarter horses, Snip N Dale, last year's winner, was assigned high weight of 126 pounds by first-year racing secretary Shorty Martin. Rr Red Rocket, who defeated Snip N Dale in both horses last out Feb. 22 at Portland Meadows, is the No. 2 choice. Co-track record holder Hannibal Lector is also in the stacked eight-horse field going 350 yards.

In the $3,400 Inaugural for thoroughbreds covering 51/2-furlongs, Im Pure Country was installed as a 5-2 favorite. Im Pure Country has two firsts and a second in his last three starts. Timely Brush, the second choice at 7-2, is coming in on a three-race win streak.

The Mail Tribune will be the fifth race and the Inaugural the eighth race on the 10-race card.

Each race day $200 will be given away with the popular "Win, Place and Show Contest."

Write your name and hometown on the back of a losing ticket and drop it in the box corresponding with the number of the horse you think will win the ninth race. If the horse you pick finishes first, second or third you are automatically entered in the daily drawing to win $100, $60 or $40. Entries must be turned in prior to the ninth race. You must be present to win and be 18-years-old or older.

Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480 or e-mail