GRANTS PASS — Rod Lowe, Harvey Boyle and the legacy of Don Jackson played significant roles in maintaining a horse racing tradition at the Josephine County Fairgrounds that dates back to the 1930s.
When the nine-day Grants Pass Downs race meet begins Saturday, much of the credit has to go to Lowe and Boyle of the Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association and a collaborative effort from several public agencies for salvaging what appeared to be a losing cause.
WHERE: Off Redwood Highway south of Grants Pass at the Josephine County Fairgrounds.
Racing takes place every Saturday and Sunday for four straight weekends and on the Fourth of July. Post time is 1 p.m. for an eight-race card.
After GP Downs lost money — purported to be as much as $90,000 — the previous two years under the management of the Josephine County Fair, the county commissioners were against the fair sponsoring the race meet in 2013.
Josephine County commissioner Simon Hare, who is the liaison to the county fair, acknowledges horse racing provides a beneficial economic effect to the community. But he didn't want the county to be exposed to the risk of running the meet.
"Their (Grants Pass Downs) budget is substantial," says Hare. "For a number of businesses this has a positive effect. We just didn't want to put the future solely on the county. With SOHRA, there's a real chance to get it back in the black by having the horsemen running it."
Receipts from horse racing returned well over a $50,000 profit annually to the county fair in the heyday back in the late 1980s. And routinely made between $25-30,000 up until two years ago.
With the threat of no more live pari-mutuel racing happening in the Rogue Valley, Lowe — the SOHRA president for the past 15 years — decided to act.
With the support from his approximately 50-member organization, Lowe went to public officials with a plan to keep local horse racing alive.
"We said we'd make a commitment to put on a race meet if we could lease the facility and the Oregon Racing Commission would give us a license and the funding," says Lowe, 52. "I spent many trips up I-5 to Portland putting in applications."
The ORC allocated $251,000 to GP Downs to help cover purses from HUB funds garnered from companies in Oregon that offer private account wagering on horse races throughout the United States. The ORC made an exception — allowing Lowe to reduce the number of daily races from 10 to eight and use what comes to $38,600 to help with operating expenses.
Chris Dudley, the chairman of the ORC, sees the value in the GP Downs meet.
"Basically every day of racing in Oregon is important and Grants Pass is the second biggest racing meet in the state," says Dudley, of Salem. "SOHRA came forward with a good-faith effort. We thought it was important for this meet to be successful. Grants Pass needed some flexibility so we changed some parameters."
Despite the compensation from the state, Lowe still needed more financial help to make the budget work.
First, retired Grants Pass banker Don Myrick Jr. offered to raise $10,000 from community members if SOHRA would sponsor the meet. Then $6,000 was raised during a Dinner at the Downs event.
"We got some locals to step up and donate the funds," says Myrick, a fair board member. "And it wasn't that difficult."
"That shows the support that's here for the races," adds Myrick. "The fair doesn't have to take the risk and the town still gets to have horse racing. Everyone wins."
While Lowe took on the operational issues, Boyle — the SOHRA vice president — organized a cadre of about 25 volunteers to assume duties associated with meeting the needs of horsemen in the stable area.
"We divvied up the work load," says Boyle, a 71-year-old retired school superintendant. "Rod negotiated the contract with the county and takes care of the money and racing aspects. I'm pretty much on the backside. I knew it would be difficult because there are so many little pieces. We've had a lot of work done free. It's amazing all the things needed to make this meet go."
Then there's the Don Jackson legacy.
Jackson, the patriarch of horse racing in Southern Oregon, passed away at the age of 87 last summer. Years ago, Jackson deeded a building he purchased next to the fairgrounds to the county, but stipulated the rent from the building be used for horse racing.
So the $24,000 annual building rent helps offset the $18,000 lease SOHRA is paying the fair.
"That gives us some extra funding to help with the meet," says Lowe. "Jackson is still supporting the race meet even though he's gone."
Lowe recognizes the track has to overcome some mistakes made by past management.
"A major challenge is to get fans in the grandstand," says Lowe. "We have the horsemen here. We just need to get enough people to get our handle up."
Lowe, who also has the duty of director of racing, is encouraged with the opening weekend card. There is no less than six horses listed in any race and Sunday's card has four seven and three eight-horse fields.
"I'm super pleased with the way our cards filled," says Lowe. "That's the key for us is to get a decent handle is to get good fields.
Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480, or email firstname.lastname@example.org