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Record GPD meet signals bright future

The perfect storm resulted in a windfall for Grants Pass Downs on its final day of horse racing this fall.

And that full race card a couple weeks ago capped a highly successful meet — in spite of COVID-19 challenges — and sent track officials into the offseason giddy about the future.

The final statistics, from a record wagering handle to the number of horses in each race, signal a robust future for the sport.

Grants Pass Downs’ total handle, buoyed by national telecasts of its races and a massive off-track presence, was $6,044,635 for 16 race days. The figure is six times the handle from the 2019 fall meet.

“That’s incredible, it really was,” said Randy Evers, GPD president. “From the number of jockeys in the jocks’ room to the number of horses that started per race to the wagering handle, even the number of fans without much advertising, the numbers, they really are incredible.”

The topper came on the final night of the meet — which ran Monday and Tuesday over eight weeks.

With a whopping 12 races on the Nov. 10 docket, GPD handled $868,632. It had never before done as much as $500,000, although it came close to a half million on the next-to-last day.

Three times, apart from the last day, the daily handle topped $400,000.

Grants Pass Downs was scheduled to race 18 days in the fall, but smoke from wildfires wiped out the first two days.

The track vowed to make up the lost starts, and after running eight races each of the first eight days, it began expanding the offerings, maxing out at a dozen races each of the final two days and bringing the total number for the fall to 144.

“We ran every single race,” said Evers, “so that was great, and the horsemen really appreciated that because they run for purses. It’s really important we make up races.”

It set the track up for a big finish.

The dozen races on the final card were a start. It also helped that GPD’s primary competition for the wagering public, Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, completed its racing about 7 p.m. Pacific, when Grants Pass still had half its card to run.

All 12 GPD races being aired on the TVG Network was a boon, as well. In fact, 22 of the final 24 races were on the national cable and online outlet.

“Honestly,” said Evers, “a year ago, to think we would have Grants Pass races on TVG, people probably would have snickered a little bit or chuckled.”

The last puzzle piece to the lucrative finale was the Pick 5 Jackpot wagering option, in which bettors try to select the winners of five straight races, in this case, Nos. 8 through 12.

Because it was the meet’s final day, there would be a mandatory payout, and further enticing horse players was a carryover of $30,000 from the previous night.

“Just think,” said Evers, “$30,000 in the pot. To these big bettors around the country, it’s kind of like blood in the water for sharks. ‘Hey, there’s $30,000 of free money, I’m gonna go get it.’ So they not only bet, they bet big.”

Roughly $190,000 was wagered on the Pick 5, bringing the pot to about $220,000. Nearly 200 winning tickets paid $1,183.80.

“Creative bets like that can really help drive the handle,” said Evers. “Like I said, everything aligned perfectly. We’re not going to do $868,000 when we start next year.”

A primary reason GPD’s popularity is on the rise is the size of the fields. For the fall meet, races averaged 8.03 horses, the highest the track has had. That calculation includes 6 1/2-furlong races, which can only field eight horses. Other distances can go up to 10.

More horses in a race means wagers are spread wider, odds go up and winnings are more substantial.

“Every handicapper in the United States of America, they’re looking for full field sizes,” said Evers, “and we offered that.”

Regardless of the impressive money figures GPD turned in, the coronavirus took its toll.

Only 250 fans were allowed to attend each day, and the average daily count was 231.

By comparison, the 2019 fall meet averaged 1,116 fans per day.

Grants Pass Downs gets about 20% of the on-track handle, 10% from off-track facilities and 4% from internet wagering.

Having the grandstands full and seeing off-track numbers continue to climb would be ideal, but there’s no telling when there will be a return to packed stands.

The average daily on-track handle this fall was $17,045, while the off-track average was $360,744, for a total of $377,789.

With 2020 racing behind them, Evers and Co. are looking to next year, fully aware that COVID-19 continues to have a grip on scheduling.

GPD will most likely continue with Monday and Tuesday races, said Evers. There’s a possibility post time could move from 4 to 5 p.m.

It might take a month or so to finalize dates, said Evers, adding that GPD is working in conjunction with Emerald Downs in Auburn, Washington.

If the schedules for the two Northwest tracks were different enough, they could share horses, trainers and jockeys, but that likely won’t happen because weather shrinks the window for meets.

Grants Pass Downs expects to start racing about mid-May and go through the July Fourth weekend. It would be idle during the county fair season, then resume in September and race into November.

In the meantime, The Flying Lark, a gaming, entertainment and dining venue, is being built adjacent to GPD at the southwest corner of Josephine County Fairgrounds.

The “racino” will have a full-service family restaurant, a grab-and-go restaurant, a sports bar, a gaming bar, a state-of-the-art gaming floor, banquet facilities and art pieces by regional artists that celebrate horses, according to a release.

Being able to bet races at other tracks in addition to those at GPD “is really the economic engine that’s going to drive racing in the state,” said Evers, adding that The Flying Lark will supplement funding of GPD.

“As well as we did with the betting handle, it still doesn’t pay for all the costs and still doesn’t pay all the purses, so we need some additional revenue,” said Evers, “and that will come from The Flying Lark.”

The center is expected to open in September, he said.

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

Grants Pass Downs