Portland Meadows asks for instant racing OK
By STEVEN DUBOIS
Of the Associated Press
PORTLAND — The struggling Portland Meadows racetrack is seeking legislative approval to add instant racing machines, a move it says is necessary to keep horse racing viable in Oregon.
Track representatives told a House committee Wednesday that the electronic machines will attract younger people to the sport, and the extra money will help increase the size of purses for winning horse owners.
The machines resemble slots and the bets are made on actual horse races from the past. The old races are on video, but horse names are withheld so bettors can't know the winner in advance. Like live horse racing, it is a pari-mutuel form of gambling in which bettors wager against other players rather than the house. The takeout — the money from the wagering pool that Portland Meadows takes out for its operations — is smaller than from a live race.
Newcomers to horse racing are often intimidated at the betting window and overwhelmed by the blizzard of numbers in the Daily Racing Form. Instant racing, besides making more money for the track, will allow the more casual fans to get acquainted with the sport, said Scott Daruty, vice president of The Stronach Group, the track owner.
Portland Meadows, which opened in 1946, has yet to announce a 2013 schedule following a season in which it saw a steep drop in the amount of money wagered on its live races. It's unclear whether the track's future is tied to instant racing, which was developed by Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and is also legal in Kentucky.
“It's tied to figuring out a way to make economic sense out of it,” Daruty said after the hearing. “We've invested a lot of money. We've lost a lot of money over the years. Our chairman is committed to the sport and has a passion for the sport, but at some point, it has to make some sort of sense.”
Members of the House Committee on Business and Labor asked few questions Wednesday and no votes were taken. Daruty said there were no plans to put the machines anywhere other than Portland Meadows, and the track is OK with the bill being rewritten to prohibit instant racing at off-track sites. Track officials have yet to say how many machines they want.
Oregon's only commercial horse racing track moved to a summer schedule in 2012 and used a retro-themed advertising campaign to win new customers. Food and beverage sales increased with the noticeable rise in attendance, but the bottom line suffered because of the switch.
The new fans tended to place modest bets, while the people who do most of the gambling on Portland Meadows races — those who wager online or at off-track betting facilities across the United States — were turned off by the change.
Before 2012, Portland Meadows raced on Monday and Wednesday afternoons in winter, a schedule that left it with relatively little competition for off-track wagering money. Moving to summer and racing at times when major tracks were operating, such as Sunday afternoons, made it an afterthought for handicappers in other states.
Moreover, the shift put Portland Meadows in competition for horses with Emerald Downs in Seattle, leaving the track with too many races in which there were only five or six horses competing at short odds. If there is a 2013 season, the track is expected to slice its schedule to 16 races per week (a pair of eight-race cards) instead of 27, allowing for larger fields with more competitively matched horses.
“It's the job of the racetrack to put equal-caliber horses together, so that puzzle is a little tougher,” general manager Will Alempijevic said in a recent interview. “When the puzzle's not tough, then the payouts aren't good because everyone reaches the same conclusion.”
In instant racing, all of the fields include races with 10 horses, and the bettors have the option of watching the entire race or just the homestretch. A limited amount of handicapping information is provided, such as the winning percentages of the jockeys and trainers.