Portland Meadows' plans for a big turnaround last summer didn't pan out quite like it hoped. Its last-ditch effort for profitability has.
Gov. John Kitzhaber is expected next week to sign a bill that could save the aging North Portland horse track—and with it the hundreds of jobs associated with Oregon's $146 million horse racing industry.
That salvation does not lie, as Portland Meadows has hoped, in revivifying Portland's affinity for the swiftly contracting Sport of Kings. It's more simple than that: The state is going to expand gambling.
House Bill 2613, which landed on Kitzhaber's desk this week, allows Portland Meadows to install a form of wagering heretofore unavailable in our gambling-happy state. The so-called "instant racing" terminals are slot-machine-like devices that run virtual horse races based on actual historic events (though with the thoroughbreds' names obscured). It's horse betting on speed—gamblers bet the ponies like they would any other race, and don't have to wait twenty minutes between competitions to get their results.
"Pending internal review, he is expected to sign it," Kitzhaber spokeswoman Amy Wojcicki tells the Mercury. "I expect it to be next week."
The bill's passage all-but guarantees Portland Meadows will resume racing for another season, something its corporate parent— the Canada-based Stronach Group—said was not a given. Will Alempijevic, the track's general manager, hasn't returned a message, but he's told me in the past instant racing could single-handedly make Portland Meadows profitable again. That hasn't happened in a long time.
There's a good deal of rancor surrounding horse racing—especially among Blogtown readers, it seems. But regardless of your feelings toward the sport, the people who rely on racing for their livelihoods have made a strong case it's good for Oregon's economy. A recent study found the state's horse-racing industry accounted for more than 1,000 jobs and $146 million in direct economic activity in 2010.
Those numbers clearly held sway with lawmakers, who opted to hold their noses and add another form of gambling to the state, however narrowly.
"I think all of us would acknowledge our state is addicted to gambling," State Rep. Brent Barton, D-Clackamas County, told his colleagues on April 29, before a vote on the floor of the Oregon House. "Specifically, we're addicted to people who are addicted to gambling."
But, he continued: "The reason why I think this narrow expansion is justified is it is critical to the long-term viability of Portland Meadows. Portland Meadows is critical to this entire industry in Oregon."
The bill passed 39-16.
The 67-year-old horse track has been slowly moldering in North Portland for years, attracting ever-decreasing attendance and revenues. So last year, Portland Meadows doubled down on the notion Portlanders loved horse racing, but didn't yet know it. The track bought a fresh paint job, corporate identity and ad blitz, and switched up racing dates from fall and winter to summer.
And it worked, sort of. People came out. Money didn't.
Now, it seems, the money might be on its way, but it's probably not going to be coming from the youngish crowds of last summer. It'll come from the folks the state's addicted to. The ones who are addicted to gambling.