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Grants Pass Downs turnaround

GRANTS PASS — Sheri Morin represents the next generation for the Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association.

Contrary to the crisis mentality surrounding local horse racing in recent years, there's an upbeat attitude about the Grants Pass Downs nine-day race meet that opens Saturday at the Josephine County Fairgrounds.

And Morin has contributed to that positive environment.

Racing continues with an eight-race card each Saturday and Sunday through July 12 and on Friday, July 3.

Morin, a Michigan native raised in Arizona, has lived in Oregon for the past quarter century. For about the last 15 years, Morin attended the races at GP Downs and volunteered her labor around the track.

"Finally I said why not become a SOHRA member, it's just one meeting a month," explains Morin, 52. "The talk in town was horse racing was going away. And we can't let this happen."

A long-standing tradition of horse racing associated with the Josephine County Fair has dated back to the 1934. But after two disastrous financial years — 2011 and 2012 — in which officials claim the horse-racing meet lost a combined $90,000 under county fair management, the future was in doubt.

That's when SOHRA and its long-time president, Rod Lowe, intervened and asked the Oregon Racing Commission for an opportunity to run the meet. Under SOHRA, GP Downs has registered striking increases the past two years. Lowe estimates SOHRA has posted about $75,000 in profits during that span.

"It's a culmination of several things," says Lowe, an owner of a construction company. "The economy is better, people are getting back into the horse business and everybody likes being on a winning team. And we're a winning team right now.

"We've seen increases in handle and attendance," adds Lowe, "and I expect it to go up this year."

In 2013, the average per race handle was up 23 percent over the meet run by the county fair the year before. And in 2014, average per race wagering jumped another 21 percent and attendance was boosted by 14 percent.

The county fair and SOHRA have run the meet separate and together over the years. But with horse racing in decline, SOHRA stepped back from sponsoring part of the meet as handle and profits spiraled downward. The track went from the high-water mark of averaging $124,917.84 in daily wagering for 19 days of racing in 1987 to a $56,268.33 average covering a nine-day season in 2001.

"It got real bad in the late 1990s and early 2000," says Lowe, 54. "Our membership dwindled and we only had about 15 people at our meetings on a regular basis."

SOHRA was founded in 1960 by a group of local horse enthusiasts that included Don Jackson, Doc Wood, Red Truitt, Ken Olmstead and Gordon Burns. The non-profit organization was formed to support live horse racing in Southern Oregon. Any profits were used for track improvement and equipment.

Over the years, SOHRA purchased the starting gate, tractors, water truck and stalls and donated countless hours of free labor to put on the meet.

While Morin is part of a cadre of new volunteers, 85-year-old retired trainer Jo Durham represents the past.

Durham joined SOHRA when she moved to Rogue River from Livermore, Calif., in 1970. Durham has been a SOHRA board member and secretary over the years.

"People were raising colts back then," says Durham, "but not as many people are raising horses anymore and the interest has dropped. We got some new members this year. We need younger members to help out and take our place."

Lowe, who has been SOHRA president since 1998, estimates the organization's membership has risen by about 30 percent in the past two years.

"It's nice to see a new group come in and have an interest and step up and act," says Lowe. "Sheri's probably been one of our hardest working members. Between her and her husband, they have been invaluable in getting stuff done. That's what it takes to put on something like this."

Morin, who joined the organization last summer, was voted onto the board of directors in January. To help support this year's event, she has been involved in putting up stalls, weed eating, writing letters for donations and is in charge of securing sponsorships for races.

"When I get involved, I'm all in," says Morin. "There's a lot of folks who have dedicated a lot of time to this and have worked their tails off for many years. They're amazing horsewomen and horsemen. There was talk horse racing was going away. We can't let this happen. My job is to see it continue."

With people like Lowe and Morin leading the way, Southern Oregon's long horse-racing tradition seems secure.

Track Tidbits

THE OPENING weekend will feature a quarter horse stakes race, three quarter horse trials for the Firecracker Futurity — run on the Fourth of July — and the Southern Belle Handicap for thoroughbreds.

Racing secretary John Everly has installed Cm Got Overserved and Sneakin Bye as the top picks in a field of five in the $3,350 Mail Tribune Stakes for older quarter horses going 350 yards. The Mail Tribune Stakes will be Saturday's sixth race.

On Sunday, 16 2-year-olds will vie for a spot in the finals of the season's richest race with an estimated purse of $23,700. There will be three heats run as the second, third and fourth races on the card. The eight fastest qualifiers advance to the Firecracker finals.

Sunday's feature is the $2,600-added Southern Belle for fillies & mares covering five furlongs, Everly gives the edge to Cascadian's Storey with jockey Kassie Guglielmino in the five-horse field. The Southern Belle will be the sixth race on the card.

JAKE SAMUELS, last year's leading jockey with 15 wins, returns this season. Samuels, 22, was edged out by his girlfriend, Guglielmino, as being the top rider during the Union meet held last weekend. The 20-year-old Guglielmino — fourth-best here last year with 10 firsts — had seven winners at Union to six for Samuels.

THE POPULAR "Win, Place and Show Contest" will give fans a chance to win $200 each race day. A drawing for $100, $60 and $40 will be held at the east end of the grandstand after the seventh race. The instructions and rules are posted at the track

TOTAL MONEY wagered during the 2014 nine-day meet was $365,101 and the total attendance was 24,365.

FREE ADMISSION on Father's Day for all dads. Last year Father's Day had the largest handle ($54,082) and attendance (3,850) of any day. The Fourth of July was second best with $52,698 wagered by a crowd of 3,805.

PROMOTIONAL DAYS planned for the meet by Tag Wotherspoon, GP Downs director of marketing and communications, include Southern Oregon University Football Day, Ladies Hat Day, Freedom Friday sponsored by Dutch Bros., Military Appreciation Day, Don Jackson Day and Fan Appreciation Day. Free admission is a component for some of the special promotions.

Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480 or fsilow@mailtribune.com

From left, Sheri Morin, Rod Lowe and Grants Pass owner and trainer Mary Boyle check out Saturday's entries in front of the GPD racing office. PHOTO BY DAN GUTHRIE
Eye Opening Attitude, far left, digs in to win the 2014 Firecracker Futurity at Grants Pass Downs. The horse racing season returns Saturday at the Josephine County Fairgrounds. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH