GRANTS PASS — Horse racing fans are champing at the bit to find out if there will be another season at Grants Pass Downs.
The Josephine County Fair Board is waiting to finish talks with the Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association before it decides if it will continue the half-century-old tradition. The event has been financially foundering for years. A recently released report showed that the 2012 horse racing season lost about $22,000. In 2011, the nine-day event lost $50,000.
The fairgrounds is overseen by the Josephine County government. Due to ongoing budget problems, the fairgrounds and many other departments have been told by county commissioners to find a way to become self-sustaining. At least two departments — the fairgrounds and the Public Health Department — have struggled to meet that mandate.
If SOHRA agrees to take over the meet in 2013, the event will go on. If not, board members say they will not be able to fund it.
"It's our decision that we can't continue to operate at a loss," Fair Board President Terry Canavello said. "But that doesn't mean we don't want it. Horse racing has a long tradition here. It is important to people."
Canavello said SOHRA is the obvious choice to take over the racing meet. The group has a historic connection to the races and is already responsible for providing local horses to compete. She said the fairgrounds would help with equipment and support, but because of the county's fiscal situation, can do little to assist financially.
Canavello said early discussions with SOHRA make her "truly enthusiastic about the possibility."
Canavello said SOHRA would be able put on the event for less money than the fairgrounds. Because of the Internal Services Fund and administrative costs assessed by the county, before the first horse comes out of a chute at Grants Pass Downs, the event is already $40,000 in the hole. Every county department is required to pay 10 percent of its budget to the Internal Services Fund. That money pays for overhead costs such as payroll, accounting and legal counsel.
As a nongovernmental entity, SOHRA would not incur the administrative and ISF costs and could hire workers at lower wages than the fairgrounds can.
County Finance Office Controller Arthur O'Hare said, absent the administrative and ISF fees, it cost about $402,000 to stage the event in 2012. About $214,000 of that was the meet's purse, which is paid by the Oregon Racing Commission. O'Hare estimated the amount SOHRA would need to come up with in order to produce the event in 2013 would be about $188,000.
Lonnie Craig, who ran the 2012 race meet on a volunteer basis, said SOHRA would have to pay $18,000 to the county for use of the facilities. He warned that liability insurance could be a deal breaker. SOHRA member Harvey Boyle is gathering estimates, but Craig guesses it could cost close to $20,000.
O'Hare said rental costs for the facility may be negotiable, at least during the first season.
Randy Evers, executive director for the Oregon Racing Commission, said "the ORC really wants to see racing continue in Grants Pass. Whoever shows energy and passion and wants to keep racing going, we'll work with them."
Horse racing fans are looking for ways to earn money to keep the tradition alive. Nonprofit Friends of the Fairgrounds Secretary Rick Wilson, longtime race supporter and horse trainer Nancy Klapatch and other Grants Pass Downs devotees are hoping to stage a large fundraiser in June or July.
Tentatively called "Dinner at Downs," the fundraiser would feature live music, and chariot, harness and match races. It also would offer fine-dining, libations and a silent auction. Proceeds from the event would be split equally between the fairgrounds, SOHRA and Friends of the Fairgrounds.
Wilson said it will take months to coordinate the event, and there is no time to waste if organizers want to secure donations before the end of the year, and tax season.
Canavello thinks the fundraiser is a "wonderful idea" but is concerned about what will happen if the board can't reach an agreement with SOHRA.
"It's iffy," Klapatch conceded. "But, life is iffy."
Wilson said if the 2013 racing meet is canceled, he will return to sponsors, give back their money and tell them he's sorry. But, like Klapatch, he believes it's worth a try.
Reach reporter Stacy D. Stumbo at 541-474-3806 or firstname.lastname@example.org