07/13/2011 1:32PM

Portland Meadows plans to go head-to-head with Emerald Downs during summer


AUBURN, Wash. – Scrambling to stay relevant in Northwest racing, Portland Meadows will abandon its traditional winter meeting in 2012 in favor of a summer/fall schedule that will place it in direct competition with Emerald Downs.

Final approval of race dates by the Oregon Horse Racing Commission could be months away, but both William Alempijevic, general manager of Portland Meadows, and Jim Fergason, president of the Oregon Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said this week that a 2012 summer meeting is essentially a done deal. Fergason said horsemen were told of plans during bargaining sessions with Portland Meadows officials and had little choice but to accept.

The new meet will begin in mid-July and end about 10 days before Christmas, thus putting Portland Meadows head-to-head with Emerald Downs for most of July and all of August and September in 2012. Just 150 miles apart, the two tracks have formed a Northwest racing circuit – Portland in the winter, Emerald in the summer – for the past 16 years.

Fergason said the concept of a summer meeting was put forward by Frank Stronach, who assumed private ownership of Portland Meadows last month.

“Frank Stronach wanted to try a summer meet; he felt like he needed a change at Portland Meadows, just to try something different,” Fergason said. “He was willing to try it, and we had to go along with it or face the alternative. We didn’t know what the alternative was going to be.”

“Our options are few, and we’re willing to do it because we want to make this work,” Fergason said. “Track management has a lot of ideas for what they want to do in the summertime, and we’re not in a position to tell them it won’t work. It’s hard to tell someone how to run their business.”

After several years of growth, fueled largely by betting from outside the state, handle at the 2010-11 Portland meet declined by 14 percent to $673,215 per day. Alempijevic said a summer schedule would give his track a chance to reconnect with local fans, create some new ones, and rebuild the handle.

“Basically, we’ve tried our best, we’ve made great inroads with sales, but unfortunately, we’re running an outdoor sporting event in Oregon at a bad time,” he said. “We’re going to focus on reinvigorating the local market, and the best time to do that is the summer.

“We have the support of the horse racing industry, and we think the commission will support this initiative to bring people back to the track. It’s a great sport and the best way to experience it is live. … if you’re not introduced to the sport in a live experience, it’s hard to get excited about it.”

Officials at Emerald Downs greeted the news with a stiff upper lip. Ron Crockett, president of Emerald Downs, met recently with Alempijevic and Jerry Kohls, Portland Meadows’s director of racing, but declined to comment on the substance of those talks. It’s unlikely, of course, that Crockett would be supportive of a move by his neighbor that could imperil the track he helped build and opened in 1996.

Alempijevic said he’s uncertain how a summer Portland meeting might affect the industry at large.

“It’s definitely an unknown,” he said. “We’re going to have to investigate a lot further and hopefully have more discussions with the folks at Emerald, the people at Grants Pass, the entire industry in the Northwest. One thing to remember is that when we race in the winter, owners don’t really get a chance to enjoy their horses running at Portland Meadows. They can’t have that true experience of being an owner, and we hope that by running in the summer, running on weekends, that we can reinvigorate the act of owning a racehorse.”

But therein lies the rub: There may not be enough horses to go around. The average field size during Portland’s most recent meeting was 7.45 runners per race. At Emerald Downs, halfway through its 82-day stand, the average field size is 6.85.

Portland Meadows distributed about $45,000 a day in purse money during its 2010-11 meeting. Emerald Downs distributes more than double that amount. If horsemen follow the money next summer, they will head to Emerald Downs.

“Our concerns are the amount of horses, where they’re going to come from, the riders, those kinds of things,” Fergason said of Oregon horsemen. “Can we split everything between Portland and Emerald?”

Kohls, Alempijevic’s right-hand man, said he was skeptical when the idea of a summer meet was first discussed.

“All I told them, when they asked me, was that it would be awfully hard to fill races,” he said.

But Kohls is on board now, as are many of the horsemen who reside in and around Portland. Alempijevic said some of the owners and trainers he has heard from are “insanely excited about the prospect” of warm-weather racing. But the bottom line, he suggested, is this: Portland Meadows has no choice but to try something new because the current setup isn’t working.

“Our long-term goal is making this a viable business and a viable industry,” Alempijevic said, “and the only way to do that is by having summer racing.”