The future of Grants Pass Downs was in serious jeopardy about this time last year.
With the Josephine County Commissioners not wanting to risk losing any more money after the local track sustained substantial loses for two straight years under the management of the Josephine County Fair, the decades-long tradition of horse racing at the fairgrounds looked to be coming to an end.
That is until Rod Lowe, longtime president of the Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association, came up with a plan that he believed could turn around the fortunes of GP Downs.
"Because of my background in running my own business for years and years and years," says Lowe, a construction company and race horse owner, "I was able to put a budget together that I was comfortable with that had a positive cash flow. I was confident it could work."
Lowe's optimism even exceeded his expectations for the 2013 race meet that concluded its nine-day season July 7.
While the final figures have yet to be determined, Lowe estimates a $20,000-plus profit will be achieved this year.
By basing his projections on the numbers from 2012, Lowe structured what he believed was a realistic budget. Lowe was able to cut expenses in some areas with volunteer participation and reached out to the community with a number of promotions.
"I knew some things that were wrong and that I was not happy with last year," explains Lowe. "I was confident that we couldn't do any worse than last year."
Not only did GP Downs do as good as the year before, it saw increases in total handle and attendance. And even more impressive, the average money wagered per race increased by 23 percent.
For 2013, total handle was $302,059 — an average of $33,562 per race day and $4,195 a race. This was reached with 14 fewer races from the previous year. The total attendance was 21,460, a daily average of 2,384.
"Overall, we exceeded almost everything we wanted," says Lowe. "There's a number of things that contributed to the success but the biggest thing was going to eight races a day. That was huge because the Oregon Racing Commission gave us funding for 90 races and let us run 72. That alone helped our dollars and gave us a good cushion."
The state provides funds to the five "fair meets" in Oregon to help defray the costs of purses. These HUB funds come from the state's share of money derived through nine multi-jurisdictional simulcasting companies based in Oregon that provide private account wagering on horse tracks throughout the United States.
Grants Pass Downs received $251,000 from HUB funds in 2013 and will receive the same amount in 2014.
Switching from 10 races to eight helped create fuller fields. There was an average of 5.68 horses in each race in 2013 compared to 5.09 the year before. And this season, 51 percent of the races had six or more horses to 26 percent in 2012.
"The most important thing that turned things around was the positive effect of the field size," says Tag Wotherspoon, GP Downs director of marketing and communications. "With the bigger fields there's more betting prospects and the payout prices potentially can be higher."
Wotherspoon had held the same position here for five years before defray he was not retained by track management last season. Lowe says one of the first calls he made was to Wotherspoon once the decision to go ahead with racing was reached.
"Bringing Tag back was a great thing," says Lowe. "I think he's worth his weight in gold. He puts 150 percent into his job."
Lowe points to the $8,000 in advertising revenue generated by Wotherspoon's efforts compared to $2,500 the previous year. Also Wotherspoon is innovative in creating popular promotions.
"We took a different management approach this year," says Wotherspoon. "We had a core group of people who care about horse racing and wanted to see horse racing continue."
Wotherspoon said he was "cautiously optimistic" coming into the season — despite the recent failures — because of the horse racing tradition in the community. He also points to the influence of Don Jackson, a major contributor to horse racing who passed away at 87 last summer.
"Don put so much time and effort into Grants Pass Downs and horse racing, I think people felt inspired and obligated to keep his legacy going," says Wotherspoon, who wore one of Jackson's signature fedoras every race day to honor him. "It came full circle. Don Jackson passed the torch to us and it was up to us to keep it going and get things turned around."
Jack McGrail, who was named executive director of the Oregon Racing Commission this spring, made his first visits to GP Downs during the season.
McGrail came away with a favorable impression: "I thought they ran a really good meet. From an operational standpoint it was very well orchestrated. I thought it was fun and the crowd had a great time. They had all kinds of things you don't usually see at the fair meets."
McGrail has a positive view for the future of the local track.
"My view is the commission and me personally look favorable on the meet," says McGrail. "When we see they're also invested in making it work, it makes it easier for our support."
Wotherspoon believes that the fans responded to a sense of urgency because the threat of losing live racing was a real possibility.
"This place has a lot of potential and it means so much to the community," says Wotherspoon. "Despite what happened the past few years, the future here looks good. It should only get better."
Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.