Racing against Oblivion 

Lawmakers May Decide Fate of Horse Track

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IT'S TUESDAY AFTERNOON at Portland Meadows, and Robert Hayden's watching the horses again.

"Went too damn wide," he mutters, fixated on a flat-panel television above the main bar. "Come back on him, six."

In this race, as in most, Hayden's horse doesn't win. That doesn't matter. As long as he hits once every two weeks or so—hits big, that is, winning $1,000 or more—Hayden will continue to spend most days at a high-top table near the main bar.

"It occupies some time for me," he says. "It keeps me thinking. It's continuously trying to solve a puzzle."

The 69-year-old Vancouver resident is among a dwindling confederacy of hardcore horse players who show up day-in, day-out—live races or not. They're the track's bread and butter; the track is their great diversion. But how long that relationship will last is an open question—and the answer might lie with the Oregon Legislature.

Portland Meadows' corporate owners are weighing whether to keep the money-losing institution open even another season. A big factor in that decision is the fate of a bill that made it, in odd fashion, out of an Oregon House of Representatives committee last week.

House Bill 2613 would let the track install "instant racing" machines—slot-machine-like devices that allow gamblers to bet on old horse races (with thoroughbreds' names not provided).

General Manager Will Alempijevic says the technology would single-handedly revive the track, which hasn't been profitable for years. Portland Meadows attempted to drum up business last season, moving its racing dates to summer in an attempt to get Portlanders hooked on horse racing.

But while the track bustled, it still lost money.

The track's owner, the Stronach Group "has sustained significant financial losses as the operator of Portland Meadows and, with justification, they have not committed to operations beyond [Portland Meadows'] current licensing period at this point," Alempijevic emailed the Mercury last week.

Horse racing has been marginalized in recent decades, but it still helps drive 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.

If Portland Meadows went away, that activity would dissipate within years.

"People are waiting to see what happens," says Randy Evers, executive director of the Oregon Horsemen's Benevolent Protective Association and, until recently, executive director of the Oregon Racing Commission. "The lobbyists are trying to work it and see if we can't get [the bill] passed."

The legislation experienced turbulence last week, when the House Business and Labor Committee voted to send it to the House Rules Committee.

"I'd wager it doesn't make it out," one lawmaker joked.

But then something odd happened. The committee's chairwoman, Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard, called a break in the hearing. When legislators returned, they took up the vote again, this time sending it to the House floor with a recommendation for passage.

Democratic staffers have blamed the confusion on a paperwork issue.

But Vice-Chairman Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, says the confusion sprang from a misunderstanding as to what House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, had in mind.

"The speaker has been moving with a rather firm hand about where bills go and whether they move and whatnot," Kennemer says. "There was a thought that it was to have been sent to Rules and was going to Rules without a clear future. Then there was a discovery there was not leadership opposition."

And now the bill, and with it the fate of Portland's 67-year old horse track, is scheduled for a second reading on Wednesday, April 24, and could be voted on as early as this week.

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