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Racing back on track at GPD

With the aid of state money through hub accounts, bigger fields and an extra race a day are planned

GRANTS PASS ' As the horse racing industry in general spirals downward, there's a beacon of hope in Southern Oregon.

When the 19-day Grants Pass Downs season opens Saturday at the Josephine County Fairgrounds, the outlook is upbeat.

Al Westhoff, GP Downs' director of racing, hopes bigger fields and an additional race each day will boost the handle. Westhoff's goal is to average &

36;60,000 a day in wagering from on-site and the state's 20 off-track locations.

We were down over one-half a horse a race last year from the year before, says Westhoff. That doesn't sound like much, but it has a negative cumulative effect. I think our horse population will be up between 10 to 15 percent, and that should help our fields.

— Horsemen from Oregon and Washington have been converging at the fairgrounds in Grants Pass the last couple of weeks. Capacity has been reached in stall applications and others are planning to haul in horses on race days.

We're as good as we've been as far as having horses, says Rod Lowe, president of the Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association, which co-sponsors the meet with the Josephine County Fair board. With fuller fields, we should increase our handle.

Much of the credit for the favorable conditions for racing at GP Downs can be attributed to state money generated from account wagering hubs established in the Portland area over the past five years.

Fifty years of organized horse racing in Grants Pass hit an all-time low in 2000 and 2001, when only nine days of live racing were held.

We were right at the point that we might be done with racing altogether, says Lowe. We were confident if we could survive one more year, we could get back to a normal level.

And Lowe was correct.

In 2002, there were 19 racing days, and last year there were 18.

Without the hub, we would not have a race meet, says Lowe. That's the bottom line. Not only here but at all the summer fair race meets. We've got some security for purses because of hub money.

The hubs generate money through accounts established by individuals who place bets over the phone or online. Wagering is done on races at tracks throughout the United States while watching on satellite or computer.

Last year &

36;830 million was bet through the five hubs in Oregon. The state receives one-fourth of — percent of the money wagered. The state's take was &

36;2.03 million. Of that, two-third (&

36;1.3 million) goes to Oregon horse and greyhound racing, and the rest is put into the state general fund.

The GP Downs race meet receives &

36;380,000 for purses from hub-generated money. With other money added by the Oregon Horsemen Benevolent Protective Association and the Oregon Quarter Horse Association, total purses will exceed &

36;450,000.

The richest quarter horse race in Oregon ' the Withnell Dodge Firecracker Futurity ' takes place at GP Downs July 4. The race will offer almost a &

36;50,000 purse.

The Firecracker is the second leg of the initial Oregon quarter horse triple crown which carries a &

36;100,000 bonus if the winner of the Portland Meadows Futurity can win the Firecracker and the new Northwest Open Futurity in Portland in the fall.

One Fast Trick won at Portland Meadows.

The Firecracker should be the toughest race at Grants Pass since the inception of the July 4 futurity, says longtime quarter horse owner Dave Nelson of Salem, adding the gates will be full of very talented 2-year-olds.

Nelson is upbeat about the prospects for this year's race meet.

Grants Pass is a key quarter horse meet for Oregon and the Northwest, says Nelson. We hit the bottom a few years ago. The trend is coming back up.

Veteran trainer John Harris from Ridgefield, Wash., has been coming to GP Downs since the late 1960s. He's seen the transformation in horse racing and appreciates what GP Downs provides.

It's about the only stable place we've got right now, says Harris. You keep thinking about all the tracks that have closed down.

This year's seven-week meet not only gives horsemen a place to compete, but the recreation value of Southern Oregon provides them with a working vacation environment.

Here you don't have all the pressure, says Harris. It's one of the only places I've ever been when a rider does a good job, he gets applause from the crowd. There's some people sitting in the same seats since I first came here.

Race officials are hoping those seats will be occupied again this year.

Track Tidbits

Last year's leading jockey, Twyla Beckner, and leading trainer, Mark Garrison, return to defend their titles.

Beckner posted 39 wins on 126 mounts. Joe Crispin, a former leading rider here, was second with 31 wins.

Crispin and Beckner won the top money in the jockey bonus incentive program last summer. Crispin received &

36;4,645, while Beckner pocketed &

36;3,999.

To be eligible, a jockey must ride in four of the five summer fair meets in Grants Pass, Prineville, Tillamook, Union and Burns.

The jockey bonus has been increased from &

36;25,000 to &

36;35,000 this year.

Garrison, a Grants Pass resident, tied with Albany trainer Bob Beckner for the most wins (12) but won the award with 12 second-place finishes to 10 for Beckner.

Saturday's first major stakes race of the meet ' the &

36;3,500 Inaugural Handicap ' drew 13 thoroughbred nominations.

Racing secretary Carol Sivak assigned top weight of 126 pounds to City Parkway and They Call Me Colonel in the eight-horse field.

Natural Wonder, owned and trained by former school teacher Nancy Klapatch of Grants Pass, drew the inside post position in the 5&

189; -furlong race.

Natural Wonder has won impressively at GP Downs in the past, but is coming off knee bone chip surgery. Natural Wonder has worked out fast on the track in preparation for his return.

There are seven thoroughbred races on Saturday's 10-race card, with no less than seven horses entered in each.

Almost &

36;45,000 in improvements were made at GP Downs financed by a hub grant during the off-season.

The most important new feature was resurfacing the one-half-mile oval and chute with 4 inches of new dirt. A machine for sifting out rocks was used on the track in the process.

Veteran Washington jockey Duane D'Amico will be part of the jockey colony here for the first time. D'Amico rode at Portland Meadows this past winter.

Last year's daily average handle for 19 days was &

36;50,126, down from &

36;53,456 for 18 days in 2002.

Mark Garcia races Scottish around Grants Pass Downs during a training run. The 19-day season opens Saturday at the Josephine County Fairgrounds. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven