GRANTS PASS — The critical 2013 horse racing season at Grants Pass Downs charged out of the starting gate last weekend with some encouraging results.
Most impressive was the 56 percent jump in attendance for the first weekend, 5,480 in 2013 compared to 3,500 in 2012. Betting was also up about 10 percent, to $73,697, even though there were only 16 races this opening weekend compared to 20 in 2012. About the only negative was some horses had to be scratched from races, due to a lack of jockeys caused by injuries.
This is a critical year for the more than 50-year-old meet, because Josephine County lost a total of $72,000 the last two years and could afford no more losses. Luckily, the Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association was willing to bet on the nine-day meet and took it over from the county.
One advantage SOHRA has over the county is it doesn't have to pay the tens of thousands in administrative costs the county did. It is simply leasing the facility at the fairgrounds from the county.
SOHRA set out to revive enthusiasm about the races, and the early results show it has done so. It's done more advertising and staged more events to support and promote it. About 150 people showed up at R-Haus restaurant in Grants Pass two weeks again at a "Dinner for the Downs" benefit for the horses and the fairgrounds. That event, which included an auction as well as fine dining on the Rogue River, raised $12,000.
At the races, too, SOHRA is trying to hold more events to attract people, including a $200 giveaway after the seventh race of the day.
Such promotions were promised last year, but never happened. And some changes that were made were for the worse, particularly moving the start time for races from 1 to 4 p.m., the heat of the day. Only an estimated 1,000 people showed up for opening day 2012 on a 91-degree day — and that was being generous.
Saturday, the comparable figure was a healthy 2,165. It ballooned to 3,315 on Sunday for the Firecracker Futurity time trials.
Higher attendance is importance, because it reflects a stronger interest. However, it doesn't always translate into more wagering, which pays a lot of the bills at a track. In fact, Americans, in general, today are wagering a lot less on horse racing and more on gambling at casinos, in state lotteries, etc.
Even with healthy crowds both days, only about $37,000 was bet daily. That's a long way from the $130,000 wagered daily at the track in 1987.
Still, one can't help but root for the races, because they provide entertainment for thousands and bring millions into the economy.
The meet may not be the strong beast it once was, but, hopefully, it has enough to dash to financial victory in 2013.