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GPD ready to roll, if air clears

There’s been a hitch in Grants Pass Downs’ giddy-up from the start of 2020, so it comes as no surprise the horse race track faces the prospect of another one with its fall meet scheduled to begin Monday.

Hazardous air quality from wild fires in the region forced the track to cancel workouts late this week and could do the same to opening day of the third scheduled meet of the year.

The fall meet is slated to run Monday and Tuesday through Nov. 10, with a post time of 4 p.m. each of the 18 days.

“The thing about smoke,” said GPD President Randy Evers, “is, if you get a little wind going the right way or a little shower Monday morning, which they’re predicting, that can go a long way toward helping us. But the safety of the horses, our athletes -- the jockeys -- the owners, trainers, even our race fans, that’s always No. 1. So we’re not going to race if it’s not safe.”

He spoke on Friday, when the air quality index was well over 300. Late that evening, it dipped below 300 and continued to fall today. Anything 301 and above is deemed “hazardous,” the worst of six categories as designated by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The index would likely have to drop below 200, which is still considered “unhealthy,” before races are allowed to take place, said Evers.

Horse racing doesn’t have an air quality standard to manage meets, according to Jack McGrail, executive director of the Oregon Racing Commission.

“It hasn’t really come up,” he told the Grants Pass Daily Courier this week. “Our veterinarians are certainly cognizant of the fact you can’t run in a soot-filled environment.”

He said the commission would look into it, and that it would monitor the conditions in Grants Pass as the fall meet looms.

Evers and Co. will do the same, and he plans to make the call no later than noon Monday as to whether races will go off, providing time for those involved or attending to prepare.

“If we’re in this 300 air quality zone, then obviously we will not race,” he said. “If we’re in that 150 to 200 range, which is considered unhealthy, there’s a possibility when we talk to the veterinarians and work with the racing commission that we could run.”

Air quality can change quickly. On Tuesday, he said, when the region was in an “unhealthy” stage, track training was canceled early in the morning. An hour later, the sky cleared and workouts were allowed to resume.

“So it’s a little difficult now to say what we might do on Monday,” said Evers.

It has been a roller-coaster ride for the track this year. The spring meet was canceled because of COVID-19, and the summer meet audience was restricted to 250 owners, sponsors and members of the media.

The track is still limited to a gathering of 250, but 150 tickets will be sold to fans on its website, gpdowns.com. The cost is $6.

Running horse races when Southern Oregon is in the midst of catastrophic wild-fire devastation gave GPD officials pause, said Evers. Located at the Josephine County Fairgrounds, the track is adjacent to hundreds of sheltering evacuees from the Almeda, South Obenchain and Slater fires.

“This is a very unique circumstance and everything is going very, very well,” said Evers. “We understand horse racing is important to us, but it pales in comparison to what other people are going through.”

Some questioned whether the Kentucky Derby should have been run last weekend because of social justice protests in Louisville, he noted. Others maintained a life-goes-on stance.

The horse racing community has had a difficult year, particularly with county fairs canceled in addition to the GPD spring shutdown.

“So the other side of the coin,” said Evers, “is the horsemen saying, ‘Gosh, Randy, we need to run. We need purse money.’ These horses never stop eating, they never stop needing to be re-shod, they never stop needing care just as we go to the doctor.

“We have people who haven’t made much money this year and they’re in debt. They need to try to run for some purse money, so if it’s safe, that’s what we plan to do.”

They’ll do it on a slightly different schedule than in the summer meet, which ended July 8. Races were Tuesday and Wednesday, the exception being the Fourth of July, and it was hugely successful because of television exposure on TVG and vast online wagering.

Grants Pass Downs’ total handle was $2,235,303, nearly four times the $573,982 of the previous summer.

The track hopes to make a similar “splash” this fall, said Evers, and the Monday-Tuesday schedule appeared to be the best avenue.

“My little corny analogy is, we’re a little fish in a big pond, and we’re trying to make a big splash,” said Evers.

There’s less competition for bettors on Monday and Tuesday, he said, and it avoids the Wednesday-Thursday schedule of another Northwest track, Emerald Downs in Auburn, Washington.

A later post time would provide more opportunity to get races on TVG, he added, but it would also drive away some of the East Coast traffic.

Oregon has eight off-track betting sites, including Lava Lanes in Medford, and there are nine advance-deposit wagering websites that carry GPD races.

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

Grants Pass Downs. MT file photo