07/19/2013 2:59PM

Portland Meadows: Fewer dates, but higher purses as meet opens


More changes will greet Oregon racing fans and horsemen Sunday when Portland Meadows launches its new meeting with an eight-race card at 1:45 p.m. Pacific.

There will be fewer race dates – 49, down from 60 a year ago – and larger purses at Oregon’s flagship track, which for decades was the center for Northwest winter racing before it was re-branded as a summer/fall venue in 2012.

Portland Meadows recently won legislative approval to install historical racing games, essentially video terminals that pool wagers and use previously run races to determine winners. Will Alempijevic, Portland Meadows’ general manager, said he expects revenues from these machines to augment purses when they become operational in 2014. In the meantime, Oregon horsemen have reached into reserve funds and contributed $400,000 to purses for the coming meet. When the stand kicks off Sunday, the minimum purse will be $5,000, up from $3,000 in 2012.

“We run a lot of bottom claimers, and that’s what the majority of our horsemen have,” Alempijevic said. “By raising the bottom, we’re getting money back in the hands of the majority of our horsemen, the majority of our owners. It’s tough to make ends meet with a $3,000 bottom. No one is getting rich at $5,000, but now someone has the ability to make a little bit of money with their horse.”

Portland Meadows’ move to warm-weather dates was intended to pump up ontrack attendance and help build a new generation of live-racing fans at what had essentially become a simulcast facility. Attendance, with free parking and admission as enticements, did jump, Alempijevic said, but betting handle plummeted. All-sources handle totaled $18.3 million for a daily average of $306,182 – a 51 percent decrease from the daily average of $690,911 during the final winter meeting.

Alempijevic said getting approval from Oregon lawmakers for instant racing machines was essential to the long-term viability of Portland Meadows as a live-racing site.

“The ability to generate additional revenue for both the purse account and our operating expenses – getting instant racing approved was paramount,” he said. “Without it, it would have been a longshot to believe there would have been another race meet beyond this one.”

A total of 63 horses were entered for Sunday’s eight races, an average of 7.88 per race. A year ago, when Portland Meadows entered into direct competition with Northwest neighbor Emerald Downs for horses and horsemen, the average number of starters per race decreased to 6.72 from 7.70.

“We’re roughly where we were at this time last year, maybe a little behind,” Alempijevic said of the horse population. “We have around 300 head, which is lower than we’d like, but we didn’t announce this race meet until really late, and the amount of horses we have is a function of that. . . . We know our horse population will grow on a weekly basis when the fair meets are over. We have tons of stall applications from other jurisdictions. We’ll draw a lot from Idaho, and hopefully a lot of horses from Emerald Downs will stay here in the Northwest when Emerald closes.”