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SOHRA to take over Grants Pass Downs

The Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association officially took over Grants Pass Downs two weeks ago, temporarily ending concerns that the Josephine County Fairgrounds' dire financial situation could spell doom for the nine-day meet.

The SOHRA has agreed to lease the horse racing facility for $6,000 a month for May, June and July, SOHRA president Rod Lowe said. After exchanging letters of intent and negotiations, the deal was formalized with a contract on April 4.

"We are now full-bore ahead with getting things ready," said Lowe, who will serve as racing director.

The meet lost about $22,000 last year and $50,000 in 2011, according to county records. County commissioners said they would not use taxpayer money to subsidize racing for another season.

The Josephine County Fair Board and the SOHRA in January exchanged letters of intent so that the SOHRA could take over.

Lowe said the goal for this season is to generate $395,000 in revenue and make a profit of $30,000. The association received $240,000 from the Oregon Racing Commission, about the same amount it did last year.

Lowe said it cost around $365,000 to stage the races in 2012.

Mary Groves, who is the interim fairgrounds manager, said the change makes sense.

"That is who should be running the races, the people who know how to," she said.

The turnover of power comes amid turbulent times for the fairgrounds, which faces a $300,000 shortfall. Josephine County gave the fairgrounds a loan from the general fund to take care of expenses through the summer.

The racing season begins on June 15 and ends on July 7, with six race days in June and three in July. Post time is 1 p.m. each day and eight races will take place. The cost of admission will be $4 for those who are 18 and older and free for everyone else. Parking is free.

The SOHRA, which has collected about $10,000 in sponsorships, will save money by using volunteers and hiring some workers at lower wages, Lowe said. The association owns nearly all the equipment at the track, including the starting gate, tractors, portable stalls and harrows.

Lowe said he believes that race-day spending and gate receipts will produce a profit.

"The money (from the ORC) doesn't pay all the bills and purses, but helps us pay purses and pay some of bills," Lowe said. "As we generate money from races and vendors that will pay the rest of the bills and make a profit."

Lowe said the association seeks to improve the meet's image and provide a fun and inexpensive experience for the community. With those goals in mind, the SOHRA brought back Tag Wotherspoon, Grants Pass Downs' former director of communications and marketing, and is forming several committees.

"It's about bringing people back who were maybe not happy with things the past couple of years," Lowe said. "Bringing the horsemen and horses back. We need to have about 300 horses to put on a good race meet. We are at about 233 right now and well on our way to reaching the 300-horse goal. Then of course there are all the other things, like having enough jockeys and making sure that when they are here we can accommodate them and make them happy."

Said Wotherspoon: "We'll do everything we can to make sure they are taken care of. Without the horsemen, whether it is owners, trainers or jockeys, we would be hard pressed to have the success we've had through the years. The two things that make Grants Pass go are the horsemen and the fans."

Wotherspoon said he plans to roll out a host of different promotions, including the win, place and show contest where $200 is given away each day.

"I'm really excited to be involved again," Wotherspoon said.

The SOHRA will host a charity dinner with Friends of the Fair at R-Haus restaurant in Grants Pass on June 6. They are selling 200 tickets for $50 each. Donations are also being accepted for a silent auction. For more information call 541-401-3961.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com

The Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association took over ownership of Grants Pass Downs two weeks ago and has agreed to lease the horse racing facility for the months of May, June and July. - Jamie Lusch