04/04/2003 1:00AM

Fair circuit riders wanted


PORTLAND, Ore. - It has always been tough to attract enough competent jockeys to ride at the brief fair meetings held in the Northwest, but the problem reached crisis proportions at the scheduled two-day meeting at Burns, Ore., in 2001.

"There were plenty of horses, but only one jockey showed up to ride," said state steward Jim Smith. "They had to cancel racing for the first day, and for the second day they scrambled around and recruited two more riders out of Idaho. We also waived the overweight rule and allowed two exercise riders to ride at about 150 pounds, so we managed one day of racing with five-horse fields. It wasn't very satisfactory."

Industry leaders put their heads together to try to avoid repeats of the situation, and it was Oregon Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association board member Ron Sutton who came up with the winning idea. Sutton's plan called for the Oregon Racing Commission to bankroll a jockey incentive program for the state's fair circuit, which includes meetings at Burns, Union, Grants Pass, Prineville, and Tillamook.

Funded last year with $15,000, the program rewarded jockeys who rode at a minimum of four of the meetings with bonuses based on their numbers of mounts and wins. The circuit's leading rider, Twyla Beckner, received a bonus of $3,699.

"It made a huge difference," said Smith. "The fewest number of riders we had for any one day of racing last summer was nine, and there were 12 riders at Burns."

The program was such a success that the commission has decided to expand it. This summer, $25,000 will be available for jockey bonuses at the non-profit meetings.

Wagering hubs foot the bill for bonuses

The reason the ORC can fund the jockey incentive program for Oregon's fair circuit is that it has extra cash. The surplus traces back to the late 1990's, when Steve Barham, then the commission's executive secretary, was contacted by officials from R.D. Hubbard's organization, which at that time operated the Multnomah Greyhound Park in Portland.

"They asked me to see what statutes would need to be amended to set up an interstate wagering hub in Oregon," said Barham, who is now assistant administrator for the University of Arizona's race track industry program. "I told them what would be needed, they put their lobbyists on the case, and the enabling legislation was passed in 1997.

"It was amended to put it under the racing commission's jurisdiction in 1999, and the first hub - Television Games Network - began operating in 2000. It was a rare instance of the industry and the regulators working together to do something that was good for everybody."

The state of Oregon receives a modest one-quarter of 1 percent of what the interstate wagering hubs handle. This didn't amount to much in the first year, but the number of interstate wagering hubs based in Oregon has now grown to five - TVG, America TAB, Oneclickbetting.com, US Offtrack, and Youbet.com - and the state's share of their combined parimutuel handle grew to $855,476 in 2002.

Of that amount, one-third went to the state's general fund and two-thirds, or $570,317, went to the Oregon Racing Development Fund, which is administered by the ORC. The ORC uses that money to fund the jockey incentive program, to supplement purses on the fair circuit, and to fund special projects, such as a new barn for Union and a new inner rail for Grants Pass.

"The fund supplemented the purses on the fair circuit by $1,000 per race last year, and this year it will be $1,500 per race," said Carol Morgan, the commission's management assistant. "It has gone a long way toward reinvigorating the fair circuit, and it will do more if the handle for the interstate wagering hubs continues to grow."

Unless, that is, the state legislature appropriates that money to help deal, in a very small way, with Oregon's burgeoning budget crisis. The legislature is currently considering such a move, according to Morgan.

Corarrow moves to stakes

Corarrow will make her Portland Meadows debut in Sunday's $10,000 Mt. St. Helens Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at a mile. She was claimed for $8,000 by owner Steve Smith and trainer Jonathan Nance at Golden Gate on March 12. Though still a maiden after six starts, Corarrow, an Oregon-bred daughter of Corslew, has four thirds, including three at distances of a mile or over.

"I'm not sure if she is good enough, but she has a big advantage over the local fillies in route experience," said Nance. "We'll try her in this race and in the Oregon Oaks, which is on April 20. The worst case scenario is that she'll get a couple of checks, and we'll still be able to run her against maidens at Emerald Downs - so what have we got to lose?"