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Grants Pass gambling center in limbo as investors push for vote

Horses race to the finish line at Grants Pass Downs. ANDY ATKINSON / MAIL TRIBUNE
Monday rally claims Oregon Racing Commission has delayed approval since October with no end in sight

Organizers who say they have invested $50 million in Grants Pass Downs and a proposed hospitality and wagering center are betting that a wave of comments from supporters will help move state officials to action after a three-month delay.

The Flying Lark and Grants Pass Downs — backed by billionaire Dutch Bros Coffee co-founder Travis Boersma — collected 530 postcards at the Josephine County Fairgrounds Monday in support of the 35,000-square-foot horse betting and entertainment center, according to The Flying Lark spokesman Michael Walters.

Whether it will convince state officials to hold a vote Thursday after delays since October, however, Walters couldn’t say, but he said the rally was about more than just the 215 jobs at The Flying Lark and another at least 50 jobs at the racetrack.

“We’re hoping it’ll have an influence on what’s going on,” Walters said. “We just want people to make their voices heard and be positive.”

TMB Racing LLC, owner of The Flying Lark and 50-year leaseholder for Grants Pass Downs, wants the Oregon Racing Commission to authorize 225 electronic wagering terminals set to be installed at the horse racing-themed hospitality and entertainment center.

“We cannot open The Flying Lark without those approvals,” stated a Friday post on The Flying Lark’s Facebook page ahead of the rally.

The terminals — made by Ainsworth Game Technology, Konami Gaming, PariMAX Holdings and Castle Hill Gaming — are in cabinets similar to those used by video poker and video slot machines, but will be used to bet on traditional horse races, according to a lawsuit filed Dec. 28 in Josephine County Circuit Court by TMB Racing.

The Oregon Racing Commission, which regulates horse racing in the state of Oregon, has delayed making a decision one way or another since October, according to the lawsuit filed by TMB Racing’s Portland-based lawyer J. Matthew Donohue.

The commission was originally slated to vote on Ainsworth, Konami and Castle Hill’s applications Oct. 21, 2021, but days before the meeting the commission “unexpectedly postponed” a vote to November.

Days before the November meeting, the action item was stricken from the agenda. The commission’s December meeting was canceled.

The commission’s next meeting is Thursday, but the four vendor applications aren’t on the agenda. The lawsuit seeks an injunction demanding that the commission vote on authorizing the terminal manufacturers by next month’s Oregon Racing Commission meeting slated for Feb. 17.

Behind the delays, the lawsuit alleges, is an Oregon Department of Justice legal analysis surrounding legal claims lodged by Southern Oregon tribes against the terminals.

On Oct. 27, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, which operates Seven Feathers Casino Resort in Canyonville, claimed that The Flying Lark’s terminals do not meet the statutory definition of pari-mutuel wagering — a form of betting in which the first three places divide losers’ stakes — and instead should be considered private lottery games, which are not legal in the state of Oregon.

Installing more than 200 of the machines at the Flying Lark would effectively be an unauthorized private “casino” on nontribal land, the Cow Creek Band argued.

In early November, lawyers representing The Flying Lark parent company TMB Racing met with the Oregon Department of Justice and refuted the tribes’ arguments, but the lawsuit claims they refused to answer Oregon DOJ questions about the center’s impacts to nearby casinos or the Oregon Lottery.

“TMB did not provide the DOJ with an analysis of policy issues relating to the ‘trajectory’ of gaming in Oregon and the effect [horse racing] wagering would have on tribal gaming and state lottery revenue because those policy issues are not within the DOJ’s mandate to issue an opinion on a ‘question of law,’” Donohue stated.

The lawsuit claims that 150 similar devices were used in the Portland area at the since-shuttered Portland Meadows racing track complex between 2015 and its closure in 2019.

Throughout that time, DOJ did not take any action or make any adverse public statements regarding the legality of Portland Meadows’ (historical horse racing) terminals,“ the lawsuit states.

In a Jan. 12 email from Donohue to the Oregon Attorney General’s office representing the racing commission in the lawsuit, filed in court records Thursday, Donahue stated that all TMB Racing wants is a vote.

“If the ORC will commit to holding an up or down vote on The Flying Lark’s (historical horse racing) application in February, then that should resolve the litigation,” Donohue wrote. “We are just looking for a date certain to have the vendor licenses and HHR application heard.”

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.