02/06/2002 12:00AM

Horsemen scrambling after meet's early close

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PORTLAND, Ore. - The closing of the Portland Meadows meet Sunday, 2 1/2 months ahead of schedule, has local horsemen in a quandary. Most trainers here usually move on to Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash., but that meet does not open until April 19. What will local horsemen do in the interim?

At least three trainers have decided to ship to Fonner Park in Nebraska. Trainer Mel While secured 20 stalls for the Fonner Park meet that runs from Feb. 9 through May 11. Trainer Lynn Homer landed 12 stalls there and Cliff Balcom has six.

Richard Lewis, the director of racing at Golden Gate and Bay Meadows, visited Portland Meadows last weekend and offered another alternative, telling horsemen that Magna Entertainment Corp. - which owns Portland Meadows, Golden Gate, and Bay Meadows - would pay to van selected horses to the Bay Area tracks. Several trainers are considering Lewis's offer, including Jerry Weaver, Dan Tanory, and Jonathan Nance.

Most, however, still plan to race at Emerald, although just about all of them said they would turn their horses out for at least a month before returning them to training. Among trainers who are planning to race at Emerald are Nub Norton, Jim Keen, Roger Stevenson, Eulia Bischof, R. G. Pierce, Jim McCoy, Steve Fisher, and Delmer Webb.

Other trainers, including Roland Brumbaugh and Bob Beckner, plan to turn their horses out a bit longer, then start up again at Grants Pass, Ore.. The Grants Pass meet is scheduled for 16 days, beginning on May 27, but the Oregon Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association is seeking to have the meet extended to 22 days of racing, beginning May 4. The OHBPA has offered to pay stall rent through April 15 at Grants Pass for any Thoroughbred who is moved there because of the early close at Portland Meadows.

The meet is closing because Magna isn't able to fulfill an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to complete a new waste-water disposal system by Feb. 15.

Both leading trainer Jim Fergason and owner Pat Sonnen, who won the most stakes races at the Portland Meadows meet, do not plan to race their locally based horses anywhere until Portland reopens in October. Sonnen will tend to his other businesses while continuing to race a few California-based horses at Golden Gate Fields with trainer Brent Sumja. Fergason will be busy standing his popular sire, Cisco Road, at his farm in Vancouver, Wash.

"I'll have plenty to do for the next few months, so I'll just turn my horses out until July and then start them back up for this meeting," Fergason said. "That's actually what I did last year, and it worked pretty well."

Oregon bill would expand gambling

The Washington Thoroughbred industry is monitoring a bill that would significantly expand gambling in the state. Senate Bill 6193, sponsored by Sen. Margarita Prentice of Seattle, would allow card rooms, mini-casinos, and charitable organizations to offer the same kinds of gambling as tribal casinos. That would include dice games and "slot-like" machines, which are played with vouchers rather than cash and operate with pre-determined, rather than randomly generated, numbers.

If passed into law, the bill would increase competition for Emerald Downs, the state's major racetrack. Emerald could presumably apply for a license as a mini-casino and operate the "slot-like" machines, but it is unclear whether profits from the machines would offset the negative effect of increased competition.

Neither Emerald nor any other industry organization has supported or opposed the bill, which is the subject of hearings in the Senate Labor, Commerce, and Financial Institutions chaired by the bill's sponsor.