10/02/2009 11:00PM

Portland going after the simulcast dollars


Portland Meadows will abandon weekend racing for a weekdays-only schedule that maximizes out-of-state simulcast exposure when it kicks off its 64th racing season Monday.

Oregon's largest racetrack will operate on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays through February, and then on Mondays and Wednesdays for the balance of the 79-day meeting, which ends with a special Kentucky Derby Day card on May 1. Post time each day is 12:45 p.m.

The transition to weekdays-only racing has been gradual. After posting a daily average handle of about $263,000 during the 2005-06 meeting, Portland Meadows dropped Saturdays in 2006-07, and then Sundays last January, midway through the 2008-09 season. Will Alempijevic, general manager at Portland Meadows, said the effect on betting handle has been profound.

"We averaged about $676,000 in handle last season, and when we added Wednesdays, we did almost $9 million in eight racing days - it's mind blowing," he said. "The schedule change has been hugely successful. We get some flak in the local market, and it's totally understandable - everyone can't go to the racetrack on a weekday afternoon - but we have to be aware that we're competing nationally for the gambling dollar."

While wagering has bucked industry-wide trends, Portland Meadows faces an uncertain future. Magna Entertainment Corp., which began operating the track in July 2001, is in bankruptcy protection, and an auction of Magna assets scheduled for last month was postponed. Magna put Portland Meadows up for sale in September 2007 and has not found a suitable buyer.

"It's been status quo here for a little while," Alempijevic said. "We've just been holding our heads up and going through it. Last year we ran 66 days, and this year we'll run 79. We're just trying our best to put Portland Meadows on the map."

About 800 horses populate the barn area, and Monday's nine-race card attracted 77 entries, an average of 8.6 per race. The $18,000 Inaugural Handicap for older horses at six furlongs highlights opening day. One of the 34 events on the stakes schedule, it's the first stepping-stone to the $40,000 Portland Mile, the meeting's showcase event in late April.

Deborah Hoonan-Trujillo, who rode 93 winners to capture the riding title last season, plans to work at Turf Paradise this winter, leaving holdovers Joe Crispin, Mark Anderson, Javier Matias and Troy Stillwell to compete for top honors. Two-time defending champion Jonathan Nance, Jim Fergason, Ben Root, Nick Lowe and Robbie Baze are leading contenders for the training title.