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Jackson recalls a rich history

The 78-year-old racing pioneer has been a prominent figure for more than 50 years at GP Downs

GRANTS PASS ' As Don Jackson stands outside the Grants Pass Downs race office on a recent weekday morning, a steady stream of horsemen stop to pay respects.

Jockeys, owners and trainers from all over Oregon and elsewhere are descending upon the Josephine County Fairgrounds this week for Saturday's opening of the 18-day GP Downs pari-mutuel race meet.

— The tall, lean 78-year-old Jackson, wearing his signature straw hat, stands erect and shakes hands firmly.

He greets each person with a precise, gentle voice. He talks to them about their families or about their horses, showing a personalized interest in each individual.

These people seek out Jackson not only for friendship but because of his past.

Don Jackson is probably one of the most prominent people in horse racing in Oregon, if not the Northwest, says Dick Cartney, executive director of the Oregon Horseman's Benevolent Protective Association. Without somebody like Don, I don't know how successful racing would be down there.

Part of Jackson's notoriety comes from owning Oregon's greatest sire, Flying Lark.

Jackson purchased Flying Lark as a 5-year-old in 1969 sight unseen. the time of his death in 1981, Flying Lark's 346 foals included 259 winners of 1,545 races for &

36;6,765,535 in earnings.

But Jackson's connection with the local track goes back much further than his famous sire. It can be traced to his teenage years, when people brought horses from the farm to the fairgrounds to race.

I remember the Johnsons from the Valley Rogue Dairy had a horse fairly good, said Jackson. And the Fosters, who did truck gardening, had a horse with pretty good speed they used to cultivate their garden. I watched them run back in 1938 or '39.

Since 1950, Jackson has lived in the same house, located nearly within shouting distance of the GP Downs half-mile dirt oval.

Jackson's active involvement with racing began in 1952, when he purchased a 3-year-old mare as a saddle horse.

The quarter horse turned out to be much more. She won some of races at the fairgrounds and was successful on the California fair circuit.

I knew that was bad because it gave me the bug, says Jackson, a 1944 Grants Pass High graduate. My weakness has always been horses and farms.

When the Josephine County Fair stopped sponsoring horse racing in the early 1950s, Jackson and a group of supporters stepped in. They got the fair to contribute &

36;3,500 and racing was held as entertainment two days during the fair.

The Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association came into existence in 1960, and Jackson was on its board.

Since the mid-1950s, we raced every year except two, said Jackson. One year they replaced us with singer Dennis Day.

The other occasion was when SOHRA convinced the Josephine County commissioners to contribute &

36;375,000 to build a new grandstand in 1969.

During this time, racing was an all-volunteer effort except for a racing secretary and a starter.

We were a unique group here for a lot of years, says Jackson. It was all very exciting. We filled the grandstand. People came from all over the Northwest to race here. It was the thing to do around Grants Pass.

Pari-mutuel betting was instituted in 1968 ' something the organizers knew was necessary for the track to be financially successful.

Grants Pass Downs became a recognized track by the Daily Racing Form in the early 1970s.

1974, horse racing and the county fair became incompatible because of congestion from parking cars on the infield of the track.

We had women and baby buggies going across the infield to get to their cars, says Jackson. We had to work the track to get traffic back and forth to the highway between races. Traffic was backed up all the way to the Caveman bridge.

Despite initial concerns about the viability of horse racing on its own, splitting from the fair proved to be beneficial. At first there was seven days of racing, then 10.

The county fair got back into sponsoring part of the meet in 1983. The track's handle kept increasing until the 1987 season, which produced the single-day record of &

36;187,000 on the Fourth of July.

All the money we made, we put right back into this place, said Jackson.

Purchases of tractors, a water truck and the present starting gate were made by SOHRA.

Don is an unsung hero, says SOHRA board member J.R. Robinson of Grants Pass. If it wasn't for Don and a few others, we probably wouldn't be running horses here now.

In the 1990 season, GP Downs' average daily handle was more than &

36;100,000, but since then there has been a decline.

In 2000 and 2001, there were nine-day seasons. Last year's 19 days averaged &

36;53,000 in handle.

The advent of the state-sponsored lottery and video poker and Indian gaming correspond with the reduction in horse racing revenue.

The financial situation has found some relief through money generated from the Hub, a personal satellite account wagering network based in Beaverton. Of this year's &

36;350,000 in purses, &

36;285,000 comes from Hub money.

It's altogether different now, says Jackson. We never dreamed about something like that (the Hub).

Jackson is one of the last Grants Pass horse racing founding fathers still alive. Present day horsemen recognized Jackson's importance when, in 1993, they added the Don Jackson Racing Facility to the name of the track.

The tone of Jackson's voice gets enthusiastic when he reflects on the past:

It was the happiest time of my life when all the people showed up around here for horse racing. We had lots of good times. It was well worth it.

Don Jackson is considered by many to be one of the most respected individuals in horse racing in the Pacific Northwest. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven