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Heat takes toll at Grants Pass Downs

GRANTS PASS — Much of the racing season at Grants Pass Downs has been oppressively hot.

The Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association and the bettors have felt the crunch at one of the largest horse racing meets in Oregon — second only to Portland Meadows.

Grants Pass runs nine days over four weekends.

So far this season, the Downs has had five of its seven race days break the 100-degree mark, including a blistering high of 109 on June 27 that destroyed the old record set way back in 1895 by 8 degrees.

"This has been the worst in every way this year," SOHRA President Rod Lowe said. "People made other plans, or no plans, just because it has been so hot."

Downs workers installed water misters at the beer garden and near the paddock to help keep fans cool, and the facility has ample shade, both underneath the grandstand and in the grandstand itself.

An estimated 6,200 people attended the first weekend of races, when temperatures were moderate. But as temperatures climbed into the triple digits, attendance fell dramatically.

An estimated 3,750 showed up for the June 27-28 weekend, and just 3,180 for last Friday and Sunday combined. Saturday, the Fourth of July, was the exception as 3,680 showed up for the richest day in racing at Grants Pass Downs thanks to the $21,500 Firecracker Futurity.

One weekend of low turnout can be overcome, but when half the season is affected, finishing in the black can be close to impossible.

"I've been coming here since 1982 and have been (working at the Downs) since 2007," race spokesman Tag Wotherspoon said. "This is the most extreme weather we've had."

The two smallest handles of the season came this last week, when the total bet on Sunday measured $21,780 with Friday's total even smaller at $21,144.

Through seven races this season, $223,648 has been wagered, about $65,000 behind last year and trailing 2013 by $10,000, when SOHRA took over full control of the races from the county.

Luckily this isn't a make-or-break year like 2013 was.

SOHRA has some wiggle room this year, as it reported a profit of $75,000 the previous two seasons combined.

"We're not going to finish in the black, but it's not going to be devastating," Lowe said.

The problems don't just stem from a lack of people in the stands. There's fewer horses in the stables. Larger purses at Boise, Idaho, contribute to this problem, but there are also fewer horses in general available for the circuit.

Racing secretary John Everly said there were 120 head in the stables, but that included pony horses and horses that aren't fit to race.

He said he would ideally like to have 150 to 200 horses available each weekend to help fill out the fields.

"This year has been a little more of a challenge than last year," Everly said. "It's industry-wide. There are just less horses."

Everly said 199 different horses ran at least one race at Grants Pass Downs last year.

"It's no secret that we don't have the horses we thought we were going to get," Wotherspoon said.

In 2013, racing cards were filled regularly by noon. Saturday's races are set on Wednesday and Sunday's are set on Thursday. This year, Everly is working to fill out a card as late as 5 p.m.

That may not seem like much, but Everly has to get creative. He starts with around a dozen potential races for each card and has to mix and match with trainers' input in an effort to get the fields.

Sometimes that means eight races aren't run.

On Sunday, seven races ran. Six ran on Friday.

The average number of horses per race is down to 5.23 this year. It reached 5.89 in 2013 and 5.71 last year. The difference may not seem like much, but the larger the field, the better the likelihood of larger betting pools.

Many trainers have complained about the size of the purses, saying the Oregon Racing Commission Hub promised more money to the meet.

"I don't think the Hub knew what kind of money it would be getting in," Lowe said. "They just committed $400,000 in the new biennial budget to stabilize Portland Meadows."

Lowe said Portland Meadows added instant betting, which if it takes off like it has in Boise, some of that $400,000 could come this way in the next budget and would help prop up the purses.

The purses this season have ranged from $2,000 to $2,500 this season, excepting stakes races, and SOHRA has committed to adding another $200 per non-stakes purse to each of this weekend's races in an effort to keep horses in town a while longer before moving on to the next stop in Prineville. The fair circuit then heads to Tillamook and ends in Burns.

Adding off-site betting isn't an option. Lowe said the reasoning is two-fold.

First, adding the off-site betting stations would make the Downs a commercial operation and ineligible for much of the funds it currently receives from the ORC. The second is that Grants Pass Downs used them in the early 2000s, and Lowe said the costs and the income were a wash.

"It's economics," Lowe said. "We've got to get horses in here and we need people to come bet."