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Excitement rei(g)ns as GPD becomes hub of racing

On the surface, it will be business as usual. Saturday, quarter horses will be led to the starting gate for a 300-yard sprint. The doors will fly open and they’ll be off, signaling the start of another Grants Pass Downs meet.

The venerable track has housed racing since county fairs of the 1920s, and the action intensified when parimutuel wagering began in 1968.

There have been ups and downs — notably in 2012, when GPD nearly went under — but the industry, comprised of a hardy, resilient band, has persevered.

Business as usual.

Then again, not.

This summer marks GPD’s first as the hub of horse racing in Oregon. The distinction comes on the heels of the closure of Portland Meadows and the issuance by the Oregon Racing Commission in March of a license for a fall commercial meet in Grants Pass.

The Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association manages the annual GPD meet. Gates open at 11:30 a.m., and post time for the first race is 1. Admission is $4.

Fans enjoying the nine-day race schedule, ending on July 7, won’t notice much difference as they attend the weekend races.

There is, however, an invigorating undercurrent charging the community.

“It’s far from business as usual as far as the excitement that’s in the air and all the positive energy that now surrounds Grants Pass Downs,” said Tag Wotherspoon, director of communications and marketing.

The vibe is tied to local business entrepreneur Travis Boersma and his TMB Racing, which was granted the commercial license on March 27, giving the company 35 race dates per year from 2019-21, along with simulcasting and off-track betting rights.

That meet will run Sundays and Mondays from Sept. 22 to Nov. 4, and although few other details have emerged, fans and advertisers alike appear to be stoked by growing interest in the sport locally.

Wotherspoon has worked at GPD since 2007.

“I’ve never really seen anything like this before,” he said. “It’s very real, it’s very positive, and I think it’s very exciting for everyone that’s either directly or indirectly associated with Grants Pass Downs.

“The future of live horse racing in Grants Pass looks brighter and looks better than it ever has before.”

Boersma grew up in Grants Pass, and he and his late brother, Dane, founded Dutch Bros. coffee. The family of dairy farmers frequented the racetrack, and Travis is now a racehorse owner.

The shifting of horse racing interests in the past decade — from SOHRA moving in to take over GPD and TMB Racing stepping up to provide a home for horsemen throughout the region — is a bit of a “perfect storm,” said Wotherspoon.

After the track at the Josephine County Fairgrounds lost money in 2011 and ‘12, the Fair Board was on the verge of discontinuing racing. SOHRA came to the rescue in 2013.

Despite growing pains, SOHRA found its way and steadily built the business, earning respect in the community and with horse people, said Wotherspoon.

As evidence, last year’s meet had the largest average number of horses per race, 6.11 in 71 races, since SOHRA took over. In 2012, the average was 5.09.

“We’ve been trying to get over six for a while,” said Wotherspoon.

The GPD rejuvenation was a necessary start.

“This race meet, at one point in time, was on life support,” said Wotherspoon, “and to see where it is now I think it’s kind of the perfect storm. SOHRA’s hard work has been paying dividends the last couple years, then you have someone like TMB Racing wanting to kind of take what we’re already doing to that next level.”

Of course, the closing of Portland Meadows was a crucial domino.

The track in north Portland had operated since 1946, but it did not renew its racing license this year. Following a pending sale, the 64-acre race property is expected to be redeveloped and turned into a warehousing and distribution center, according to reports.

The uncertain future of Portland Meadows, owned by The Stronach Group, kept the horse racing industry on edge in recent years, said Wotherspoon.

TMB Racing’s emergence offers a bit of stability.

“That’s why there’s more excitement in the air than ever before, or lat east in a long time,” said Wotherspoon. “It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

Boersma’s application for a commercial license included improvement plans: expanding the grandstands and concession areas, providing lights for night racing, widening the track to accommodate a larger starting gate, lengthening the quarter-horse track, etc.

Much of the work will be done around the summer and fall meets, said Wotherspoon, and won’t be noticed by race-goers.

The track surface has been improved, he said, and is getting rave reviews. Sand was worked into the dirt, providing cushion.

“It’s probably in better shape than it’s been in a long, long time,” he said. “That’s one of the first things in this whole process and will make a big difference this summer.”

And it begins Saturday.

There are eight races scheduled, and five of them have six or more horses entered.

The feature races are the fifth, the Mail Tribune Rogue Dash, a 350-yard quarter horse stakes race; and the seventh, the Daily Courier Inaugural Stakes, a 5-furlong thoroughbred race.

Sunday of opening weekend, Father’s Day, is one of the track’s marquee days. Four trial races for the Firecracker Futurity quarter horse race will go off. The Firecracker — the 28th running will be July 4 — is the meet’s richest race, with an estimated purse of $30,000.

Fathers get in free on Sunday.

There are more than 200 horses on the grounds and more on the way, said Wotherspoon. Others will be shipped in throughout the meet.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that our average field size is going to be similar to what happened in 2018,” said Wotherspoon. “And if that’s the case, I think we’ll feel pretty good about it. You always want to do better, but you have to be realistic, too.”

In 2018, GPD had an average daily attendance of 2,690, and an average handle, on- and off-track, of $61,666.

Totals for the nine days were 24,210 people and a handle of $554,995.

Eduardo Gutierrez-Sosa was the leading jockey with 12 winners, followed by Katrina Schaub and Louis Zacherle, each with 11.

Hector Magallanes topped the trainers’ chart with nine firsts, almost double the five each by runners-up Bill D. Hof and Nick Lowe.

The leading owner was Glory B. Stables LLC, with four victories. Jim Craig, Gilbert Daniels and Gabriel Alan Williams had three each.

There are promotions each day of the meet. Saturday is Josephine County Food Bank Day, and fans who bring two cans of food receive a GPD day pass for later in the season.

HORSE RACING

GRANTS PASS DOWNS

Saturday's Entries

Post Time 1 p.m.

FIRST RACE

QH Mdn, 3-year-olds & up, 300 yd, $2,700.

1. Stolis Royal RebelJ. Lopez

2. AddysdreamB. Boulanger

3. Shes a Class JumpR. Burney

4. Lupita CruzE. Gutierrez-Sosa

5. Chicks Fast FreedaJ. Guerrero

SECOND RACE

QH Alw, 3-year-olds & up, 300 yd, $2,800.

1. El Moro PrietoJ. Guerrero

2. Ivory BacR. Burney

3. Hawkin SunE. Gutierrez-Sosa

4. PreachinforcashJ. Lopez

5. Alabama HillsT. Smith

THIRD RACE

TB, Clm 2,500, 3-year-olds & up, 5 1/2 F, $2,800.

1. Boldly TrueB. Boulanger

2. UptownfreddybrownR. Burney

3. Our Lucky DayJ. Lopez

4. Crazy AlJ. Guerrero

5. Hunterwood PointE. Gutierrez-Sosa

6. My Boy RudyJ. Munoz-Estrada

7. Wedgey TimeT. Smith

FOURTH RACE

Oregon Bred Mdn, 3-year-old & up, fillies & mares, 5 F, $2,800.

1. McKenna WarriorE. Gutierrez-Sosa

2. GofargogoR. Burney

3. Good Job JackieJ. Lopez

4. Ms TinydanzerB. Boulanger

5. Dolliys GoldJ. Munoz-Estrada

6. Wedgey TimeT. Smith

FIFTH RACE

QH Stks, 3-year-old & up, 350 yd, $5,900.

1. Sweet Dream DemonE. Gutierrez-Sosa

2. JI RebelJ. Lopez

3. Cm Once Ina BluemoonJ. Munoz-Estrada

4. L Bar D Genuine RedB. Boulanger

5. Sneakin TrR. Burney

6. I Aint CallinS. Ibarra

7. WarhockT. Smith

8. Chicks Fast FarleyJ. Guerrero

SIXTH RACE

Alw, 3-year-old & up, fillies & mares, 4 1/2 F, $2,800.

1. My Secsea SenoritaJ. Guerrero

2. Love U L CJ. Lopez

3. Brite LilyT. Smith

4. Lady TrumpJ. Munoz-Estrada

5. Diana’s Red WineB. Boulanger

6. SheabazingaE. Gutierrez-Sosa

7. She Flys ForeverR. Burney

SEVENTH RACE

Stks, 3-years-old, 5 F, $3,400.

1. Storm On the RiverB. Boulanger

2. Where’s My VoucherJ. Guerrero

3. Mr. TakahashiR. Burney

4. Megatron RulerJ. Munoz-Estrada

5. Fashion ProspectE. Gutierrez-Sosa

EIGHTH RACE

Clm 3,500, 3-year-old & up, fillies & mares, 5 1/2 F, $2,800.

1. Miss OverlookJ. Lopez

2. Storm in ParisR. Burney

3. TilltheluvrunsoutB. Boulanger

4. Clem JuiceJ. Guerrero

5. Charlie My LoveE. Gutierrez-Sosa

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

Jockey Kitty Schaub riding Thoroughbred Focus Now (left) attempts to overtake King's to You and rider Louis Zacherle during the Sixth Race at Grants Pass Downs on Wednesday, July 4, 2018.[PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR]