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Horse racing center is not really a casino

Dutch Bros co-founder Travis Boersma is poised to open a new hospitality center next to the Grants Pass Downs horse-racing track. But Native American tribes who operate casinos on tribal land oppose the project, saying it represents illegal competition.

Boersma wants to install more than 200 machines that allow patrons to bet on horse races that have already occurred elsewhere. Known as Historical Horse Racing Machines, they are in use at tracks across the country, but not in Oregon since Portland Meadows closed five years ago.

State law allows pari-mutuel betting — in which participants bet against each other, not against the house — at horse tracks. Boersma says the machines he wants to install are therefore exempt from the ban on casino gambling off reservations. The tribes contend the machines are really glorified slot machines and will take money away from their casinos, which pay for services to tribal members.

The Oregon Lottery operates video poker machines in outlets across the state, but those are not considered casinos either.

Grants Pass Downs is the only remaining commercial horse racing track in the state. Boersma is attempting to revive the track, and says he needs the revenue from HHR machines to make that financially feasible.

He also says he has offered to work with the tribes in partnership to make sure their concerns are addressed.

The Seven Feathers tribal casino in Canyonville, 45 miles from Grants Pass, offers a full-blown casino experience including craps, blackjack and other table games as well as slot machines. It includes a hotel and live entertainment venues featuring nationally known performers. That’s a far cry from a horse track with an attached entertainment center featuring horse-racing terminals.

Other tribes operate casinos around the state with similar amenities. It’s hard to envision many gamblers who want that kind of casino experience being lured to Grants Pass for horse racing instead.

There ought to be room in Oregon for both kinds of entertainment, and Boersma says the state’s delay in deciding on his request is threatening more than 200 jobs.

The Oregon Racing Commission, which regulates horse racing at Grants Pass Downs and at county fairs, was to have ruled on Boersma’s request last fall, but put that off after Gov. Kate Brown urged the commission to consult with the tribes and seek a legal opinion from the state Department of Justice before making a decision. No opinion has been produced. Boersma filed a lawsuit last month seeking to compel the state to make a decision by Feb. 17.

The commission should stop dragging its feet and make a decision.