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Despite losses, GP Downs alive and well

GRANTS PASS — Local businessman Marty Hirsch is a loyal patron of Grants Pass Downs.

And despite the searing heat that hit the Rogue Valley during the past nine-day race meet, Hirsch was still a regular at the local track.

"I think they did a heck of a job of putting it on," says Hirsch, a life-long horse racing fan. "When the heat gets to over 100 degrees, it is unbearable."

The string of 100-degree days that struck the region during this year's meet had a negative impact on the attendance and handle. But the track ended on a positive note, when the final weekend produced a two-day handle of over $87,000. The final day's handle of $50,418 was the second largest day of wagering in 2015 — trailing only the $52,527 bet on Father's Day.

For the meet, the total amount bet was $311,235 — about 15 percent down from the $365,301 in 2014.

The Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association, which took over management of the track three years ago, will suffer about a $20,000 net loss this season. Fortunately, SOHRA can absorb the deficit after posting a combined $70,000 profit the previous two seasons.

"We're fine, we're going to be racing next year," says Rod Lowe, SOHRA president. "We already have a budget for next year."

With the total handle down about $55,000 from the previous year and increases in expenses, like jockey insurance and equipment, SOHRA could not match the earlier success.

"We went into the year thinking if everything went the same as last year, we would have broken even because of expenses being more," says Lowe. "Outside of financially and the heat, we had a great meet. When people were there, people bet on the races and had fun."

Hirsch is one of those folks who appreciates having an opportunity to annually bet on local live horse racing.

"To me this is the most simplistic form of entertainment imaginable," says Hirsch, who moved to Southern Oregon 22 years ago from Southern California. "To spend a day with these magnificent animals and athletes is a pleasure. It's just fun.

"It's a breathing, living puzzle if you know what racing is all about," explained Hirsch. "It's the most challenging form of gambling and the most desirable."

On the competitive side, Kassie Guglielmino won her first jockey title at GP Downs. Guglielmino brought home 23 winners, just one more than her boyfriend, Jake Samuels, last year's leading rider.

Unfortunately for Guglielmino, the 20-year-old jockey broke her collarbone in the opening day of the Prineville meet Wednesday.

Jason Homer, from Pasco, Wash., was the leading trainer and owner. Homer won the leading trainer award the last time he raced horses at GP Downs in 2010.

Homer explained he returned to Grants Pass because of SOHRA's accommodating attitude and an opportunity to take a break from racing at bigger tracks. Homer's nine wins as a trainer netted $13,602 in earnings.

"We like the area more than anything else," says Homer. "It's like taking a vacation. Also they have the right races for our horses."

Another sign of GP Downs' popularity is the record dollar amount of ads sold for the racing program by Tag Wotherspoon, GP Downs director of marketing and communications. Wotherspoon had over $11,000 in ad sales, the most since he began his involvement in 2007.

"It's an example of the great support we get from this community," says Wotherspoon, "and how people feel about horse racing here."

Wotherspoon experienced positive feedback for the job SOHRA has done to keep alive the local horse racing tradition, which dates back to 1934.

"Our biggest challenge was mother nature," says Wotherspoon. "We got off a a good start and finished strong. As long as the races are competitive and the payoffs are fine, then the fans feel they're getting value for their wagering dollar."

Lowe points to the final weekend as a true indicator for the support of the sport here.

"That last weekend proved to us it was nothing to do about people not liking horse racing," says Lowe. "It was all about the weather. It wasn't people not wanting to come to the races."

Despite seeing days where the heat impacted attendance, Grants Pass Downs ended on a positive note with a final weekend that produced a two-day handle of over $87,000. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH, JR.