PORTLAND — Since opening in 1946, the Portland Meadows racetrack has withstood a fire that burned its grandstand to the ground and the massive flood that eliminated Vanport City. But it might not survive the exodus of gamblers who prefer the simplicity of slot machines to the inscrutable numbers inside the Daily Racing Form.
To help the north Portland track stay afloat, the Oregon Senate on Thursday gave final legislative approval to a bill allowing Portland Meadows to add electronic gambling machines known as Instant Racing devices.
The machines resemble slots, and the bets are made on actual races from the past. The old races are on video, but horse names are withheld so bettors can't know the winner in advance. Gamblers could visit the track site year-round to place bets on the machines.
As with live horse racing — and unlike slot machines — it is a pari-mutuel form of gambling in which bets are pooled against other players rather than against the house.
Track representatives say the electronic machines will attract younger, video-oriented people to the sport, and the extra money will boost purses for winning horse owners competing in live races. Track officials hope bigger purses would bring more horses and more excitement to their live races.
"It definitely provides a stable footing and allows us to generate revenue for higher purses and to cover all of those high-operational costs of running 101 acres and having a barn area," General Manager Will Alempijevic said Thursday.
Portland Meadows has yet to announce a 2013 schedule following a season in which the already-struggling track saw a steep drop in the amount of money wagered on live races.
Oregon's only commercial horse racing track moved to a summer schedule last year and used a retro-themed advertising campaign to win new customers. Attendance increased, but the bottom line plunged.
The new fans tended to place modest bets, while the people who do most of the gambling on Portland Meadows races — those who wager online or at off-track betting facilities across the United States — were turned off by the change.
Before 2012, Portland Meadows raced on Monday and Wednesday afternoons in winter, a schedule that left it with relatively little competition for off-track wagering money. Moving to summer and racing at times when major tracks were operating, such as Sunday afternoons, made it an afterthought for off-track handicappers.
Moreover, the shift put Portland Meadows in a losing competition for horses with Emerald Downs in Seattle, leaving the track with too many unattractive races in which there were only five horses competing at short odds.