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GP Downs hopes to turn a profit in 2009

After missing the opening weekend of racing, Nikeela Black didn't think winning her second Grants Pass Downs leading jockey crown was realistic.

But coming down to the final two races of the meet, Black trailed Luis Torres by just two wins.

Sure enough, Black won those two, including a come-from-behind victory over Torres in the last race.

For the 24-year-old rider from Kennewick, Wash., it was her second title in her five years riding at GP Downs.

"When I missed the first weekend, there wasn't any pressure on me," said Black. "Leading rider wasn't even a goal of mine. I didn't think I had a shot."

Entering the final day, Black held a 13-12 lead over Torres in wins. But Torres took command by winning four of the first eight races, while Black managed one victory.

Going into the last two races, Black still had a mathematical chance to tie Torres, but she wasn't too confident about her chances.

"I knew I had a really good shot on Lucky Thirteen in the next to last race," explained Black, "but I wasn't so sure about the next one."

Black was correct as the overwhelming favorite Lucky Thirteen won the ninth race by five lengths.

In the 10th race, a 5-furlong claimer for fillies and mares, Torres was in the No. 1 post position aboard Chocolate Starr, while Black was next in the gate with Flexible Loyalties.

When Flexible Loyalties got cut off going into the first turn, Black's hopes faded. But the horse didn't give up.

"When (Flexible Loyalties) showed me she was game, I asked her on the back side," said Black. "I caught (Chocolate Starr) on the final turn and put my head down and kept riding."

Flexible Loyalties rallied for a 1-length victory over Torres on Chocolate Starr, giving Black a share of the riding title as the nine-day season came to an end.

Torres, who tied a track record with seven winners on Father's Day, finished with 16 victories on 68 mounts. Black got her 16 wins on 61 rides. Black's horses won $36,855 in purse money — the most of any jockey.

Ruben Camacho, who had a mount in all 84 races in the meet, finished third with 13 winners, while Joe Crispin was fourth in the standings with 10 victories on just 23 rides.

Having 13 scheduled races cancelled because of a late afternoon thunderstorm on the opening weekend worked to Black's benefit but proved costly to the GP Downs bottom line.

The track was off to a very successful opening day on June 13. The betting handle was more than $37,000 through seven races, but the rain storm washed out the final three races and all 10 on Sunday.

For the season, the total amount wagered was $404,501 for 84 races. The track's take is about 20 percent of the handle.

The average handle per race was $4,815, down 2.7 percent compared to 2008.

"When you look at the big picture," said Tag Wotherspoon, GP Downs director of communications and marketing, "with the economy being down and having to deal with Mother Nature on that first weekend, we are very pleased with the numbers."

Wotherspoon estimates the track will not match last year's approximate $28,000 profit, but should still be in the black.

The number of horses in each race, a most important statistic, was up over the previous two years. In 84 races, 568 horses were loaded into the starting gate — an average of 6.76. In 2008, the average was 6.16 and the prior year it was 6.37.

"Whenever you have that type of situation, it makes the races more competitive and the larger fields help the handle," said Wotherspoon. "It gives our racing secretary more freedom and flexibility when writing races."

On a negative side, three horses had to be euthanized when sustaining injuries during races.

The two biggest race days as far as money wagered were Father's Day and the Fourth of July. On Father's Day, the track handled $62,934 for 12 races, while $61,291 was wagered on 10 races on July 4. The $9,102 bet on the Firecracker Futurity was the largest amount on a single race.

Trainer Bob Beckner capitalized on having a large number of horses available to run to pick up his third leading trainer award. The 71-year-old horseman from Albany, who tied with Karen Haverty last year and won his first title in 2005, registered 13 wins on 62 starts. Additionally, his horses had 13 places and 10 shows, also the most among trainers.

John Martin, a prominent northern California trainer, was quite successful racing horses at the Downs for the first time. Martin was second among trainers with seven wins in nine starts. He also had two shows.

Scott Raley and Jim Haverty tied for third in the trainers' standings with six wins each.

Attendance for the eight days of racing was 18,684, an average of 2,336. There was a 5 percent increase in attendance over the previous year.

"We were really excited on how our promotions turned out as evidenced by our increase in attendance," said Wotherspoon. "We are going to try to be creative and add some new promotions next year. We have to try different things to generate interest in Grants Pass Downs and horse racing."

The track held two fan appreciation days where everyone received free admission. In addition, fathers were let in free on Father's Day and women were not charged on Ladies' Day. There was a Kids' Day promotion, where the first 200 children received a free toy, and free miniature flags were handed out on Independence Day. Coupons for a complimentary beverage and bark chips were given away if people bet on races sponsored by Dutch Bros and Copeland Landscape Supply, respectively.

The most popular promotion was the $200 win, place show contest drawn after the ninth race each day. A raffle was held from losing tickets placed in boxes and $100 was given to the ticket drawn from the box number corresponding to the winning horse and $60 for second and $40 for third.

"Once again the support we got from the horseman, the community and the fans made all the difference in the world," said Wotherspoon. "That's why we had a successful meet and can keep this going year after year."

Reach reporter Frank Silow at 776-4480, or e-mail fsilow@mailtribune.com