07/13/2012 2:40PM

Portland Meadows begins first-ever summer meeting

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Portland Meadows, Oregon’s flagship track for more than six decades, will venture into the great unknown Sunday when it launches its first summer race meeting. The action begins at 1 p.m. Pacific, with two Quarter Horse races kicking off a nine-race card. Majestic Afleet, a recent winner at Golden Gate, headlines the feature race for Thoroughbreds, the $10,000 Inaugural Handicap at six furlongs.

After operating a venue geared to cold weather and the Northwest’s persistent rain, with a glass-enclosed grandstand and winterized racing surface, Portland Meadows officials have embraced the opportunity to update the facility with outdoor viewing areas, bars, food service, and other amenities. They gave the grandstand a new color scheme, improved the turf club and other indoor seating areas, and papered downtown Portland with billboards promoting the new meeting.

Now comes the real work – filling the races and creating entertainment value in an outdoor-oriented market with many other summer options. The weather forecast for Sunday calls for a few clouds and temperatures near 80, a near-perfect day for racing. Will Alempijevic, Portland Meadows’s general manager since 2006, expects a big turnout, though he declined to give targets for attendance and handle, citing the lack of precedent – there’s never been racing in July at Portland Meadows.

Average all-sources handle during the most recent winter meeting – a 55-day stand that ended March 14 – was $690,930, almost all of it generated from offtrack wagering. Ontrack attendance was negligible. Those results were insufficient for Frank Stronach, who assumed private ownership of Portland Meadows in June 2011. Plans for the summer meeting were formalized shortly thereafter.

“Who knows how it will all work, but we believe in it,” Alempijevic said. “The transformation has been amazing. We really are great entertainment, and we really are affordable entertainment. We’re making it as easy as possible for people to get here, providing shuttle service, free parking, free admission, good food and beverage – affordably priced food and beverage – and we think summer racing is going to be a huge success this year.”

The schedule calls for racing three days a week through the end of September, with evening cards Wednesdays and Fridays, and afternoon racing Sundays. A fall meeting will commence in early October and end Dec. 9, with matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. There will be four Quarter Horse races a week, with the rest of the races for Thoroughbreds.

A total of 42 horses were entered for Sunday’s seven Thoroughbred races, an average of six per race. That compares to an average of 7.63 runners during the most recent winter meeting. With Emerald Downs, near Seattle, and Hastings, in Vancouver, British Columbia, both in the heart of their traditional summer meetings, horses could be in short supply for the balance of Portland’s new schedule, a fact Alempijevic readily acknowledges.

“It’s the same challenge that every racetrack has, no matter when you run,” he said. “We all have the same challenges of filling races. But we’re very optimistic. We carded nine races for opening day, and while we could have had a few more competitive races, at the end of the day, we’ve got nine races. Is there room for improvement? Yes. But we’ll keep talking to our horsemen to write races that appeal to them.”

If Oregon horsemen are wary about their future, they also are enthused about the chance to stay home during the best months of the year. Jonathan Nance, a former training champion at Portland Meadows, lives just across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash. He entered three horses for Saturday’s races at Emerald Downs, and four more on opening day at Portland.

“The mood seems to be pretty good as far as them trying to make a go of it,” Nance said this week. “They’ve done a lot of work on the frontside. As far as having enough horse to run, we don’t know if we’re going to be able to make it, but I think everyone is optimistic at this point.”

“They are going to be cheaper races,” Nance said. “They’re going to try to draw some horses from around the bushes, and horses that can’t compete at Emerald Downs. As horsemen, we’re hoping that somehow, some way, we can get horses to fill enough races so we don’t go under.”

Essential in that pursuit, Alempijevic said, is attracting, maintaining, and growing a base of fans for live racing.

“We signed on with an outfit called the Official Manufacturing Company, and they, after a lot of discussions, were able to give us a complete re-brand, new logos, and brand image that emphasize what we are and what we stand for,” he said. “The new logo is absolutely perfect, with the horseshoe and the year we stated, 1946, and both are prominent. It’s a great business, a great tradition, and the fact we’ve been around since ’46 means a lot.

“In Portland, we want to present ourselves as a great entertainment, and an affordable one. Sure, we could do a cash grab by charging for admission, but we didn’t want any barriers to admission. The goal is to create new fans who will wager on the horse races.”