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GP Downs off and running

GRANTS PASS — To say Darlene Braden is a hard worker is an understatement.

On a recent weekday morning in the stable area at Grants Pass Downs, the veteran trainer can be seen galloping thoroughbreds on the track, tending to her seven-horse barn, dashing to the race office on entry day or dealing with business on the cellphone. Braden is truly a one-person operation.

The indefatigable Braden is among about 50 horse people descending on the facility this week in preparation of Saturday's opening of the nine-day race meet at the Josephine County Fairgrounds.

Pari-mutuel racing takes place every Saturday and Sunday through July 6 in addition to a Friday, July 4 session. Gates open at noon, with a 1 p.m. post time daily for an eight-race card.

After losing a combined $90,000 on horse racing in 2011 and 2012 under the management of the Josephine County Fair, there was concern whether the sport would continue locally after more than 75 years of operation.

But Rod Lowe, president of the Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association, devised a plan that turned fortunes around and resulted in a profit of $66,000 in 2013.

"There were a lot of factors involved in the turnaround," says Lowe, who also doubles as director of racing. "We're respected a lot more by the horsemen than a fair manager. There always seemed like there was tension between the fairgrounds and the horsemen."

Lowe and SOHRA raised $12,000 from the community, received concessions from the Oregon Racing Commission and marshaled volunteers to do many jobs that cost money in the past.

In a gesture of goodwill, SOHRA donated $20,000 of its profits to help the fairgrounds remain open.

"The fact we got off to a good start the opening weekend set the tone," says Tag Wotherspoon, GP Downs director of marketing and communication. "When you talk about Grants Pass Downs, the history and tradition speaks for itself. The community support complements the support we get from the horsemen. When you put this all together, that's why we've been successful."

Bill Hof, a horseman from Walla Walla, Wash., returned to GP Downs last year for the first time since 1981. And Hof is back again in 2014.

"We had fun, our horses fit and things went pretty smooth last year," says Hof. "Rod (Lowe) was the anchor. He had a lot of help and hopefully they'll build on last year and the crowd will come out to support things."

John Harris, a horse trainer from Ridgefield, Wash., has raced at GP Downs since the late 1970s. Harris returns because of the relaxed, fun environment.

"The atmosphere and the people are so friendly," says Harris, 69. "The people in the grandstand talk to you like they know you."

That's also the reason Braden, 53, has participated in every GP Downs meet since 1994.

"I like to come here because there is so much to do," says Braden, who especially enjoys rafting the Rogue River. "It's so much more relaxing than other tracks.

"My brother from Illinois came here last year for the first time in many years," says Braden. "He had so much fun, he's coming back again this year."

Braden was a jockey until a pair of on-track accidents on successive weekends at GP Downs in 2010 ended a 26-year riding career.

The divorced mother of two grown girls and a teenage boy won her first race on her father's horse named for her — Darlene J — in 1986 on the Tillamook race track her grandfather helped build.

"From there it was in my blood," says Braden. "I just loved the adrenaline rush."

Braden's dad, Derral, is a legendary Oregon horseman. Derral Braden, 89, was a horseshoer by trade but horse racing was his hobby. Darlene Braden grew up around horses with three brothers and a sister on the family's large farm four miles from the Tillamook track.

"My dad and I have always been super close," says Braden. "I didn't go to a baby sitter as a kid. I always went with my dad horseshoeing. My dad's love of horses became my life."

Braden is held in high esteem in the horse racing community. When she was sidelined for a year after sustaining the worst injury in her riding career at GP Downs 15 years ago, her fellow horsemen held a fundraiser to help out.

"If they hadn't done that, I would have lost everything," says Braden.

Wotherspoon acknowledges Braden's standing among horsemen: "She's just so well-respected. It's her attitude and the pride she takes in her work. She's the consummate team player."

Grants Pass owner and trainer Sally Reid is amazed at Braden's work ethic.

"Darlene is the hardest worker I've ever seen," says Reid. "This is a women who has incredible energy and stamina. I get tired just being around her."

Horse owner Teri Beckner, of Albany, has known Braden for many years.

"She has the biggest heart in the world," says Beckner. "She's there for everybody. She was also a gutsy rider who always gave 100 percent."

Braden epitomizes the spirit of horse people from throughout the Northwest that return each year to compete.

And Lowe, along with a cadre of SOHRA volunteers, is doing everything they can to preserve the long-standing tradition of live horse racing in Southern Oregon.

Track Tidbits

Saturday's opening day has a pair of featured stakes races on the card.

The $2,400 Mail Tribune Purse, a quarter horse allowance, has a field of six covering 350 yards. Angel Eyez, a third-place finisher in last year's Firecracker Futurity here, is the morning-line favorite at 2-1 and the 7-year-old mare, Shezahawk, trained by Braden, is the 5-2 second choice.

The Daily Courier Inaugural Stakes has a full field of eight thoroughbreds vying for the $3,000 purse. Epic Coast, winner of his last two, is the top choice at 3-1 in the 5-furlong race.

Wotherspoon has a full schedule of fan promotions for the meet.

On Sunday — Father's Day — all dads will receive free admission. On June 21 there is no admission compliments of Dutch Bros. Coffee. Other promotions are senior citizen day, Don Jackson Day and ladies hat day. The final day, July 6, is fan appreciation day with a drawing for prizes between each race.

The popular win-place-show contest is also back after the seventh race.

Two-time defending leading trainer, Don Young of Boardman, returns. Young has six horses entered on Saturday's card.

Last year's leading jockey Luis Gonzalez is riding at Emerald Downs near Seattle and isn't scheduled to ride at the meet. Humberto Martinez, the top rider with four wins at the recent Union fair meet, will be here for the first time

  • In 2012, the GP Downs total handle was $302,059 and attendance was 21,460. That translates to an average daily handle of $33,562 and average attendance of 2,384.
  • John Everly replaces Shorty Martin as racing secretary this season. Martin had a four-year stint at GP Downs but leaves for a similar position at Les Bois track in Boise, Idaho.

Everly, 55, was the assistant racing secretary at Turf Paradise in Arizona for two years. Everly will also handle the duties at the four other tracks on the fair circuit.

The Oregon Racing Commission donated $12,000 of the almost $18,000 price to refurbish the 50-year-old starting gate for safety reasons.

GP Downs off and running