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Portland Meadows track ends summer horse racing experiment; new season opens Oct. 12


PORTLAND, Oregon — Portland Meadows racetrack announced Tuesday it's going back to a fall and winter schedule, ending a two-year experiment with summer racing.

The season starts Oct. 12 and continues on Sundays and Wednesday through mid-February. Besides returning to the rainy months, the financially troubled track has condensed its season from 49 dates to 36.

"We're just doing everything we can to cling on to what we have, and what we have is the remnants of an industry," said Will Alempijevic, the general manager.

Oregon's only commercial horse racing track opened in 1946 and moved to a summer schedule two years ago. Sunny days and a retro-themed advertising campaign helped dramatically boost attendance, with hipsters mimicking the outfits worn to the Kentucky Derby.

But while and food and beverage sales increased, the bottom line did not.

Most wagers on horse racing come from off-track betting parlors or online. Before 2012, Portland Meadows raced on Monday and Wednesday afternoons in the fall and 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 made it an afterthought for handicappers in other states.

The shift also put the track in competition for horses with Emerald Downs near Seattle. Track officials, who had to negotiate the 2014-15 dates with horse owners and trainers, cited that as the reason for returning to a fall schedule that begins shortly after the Emerald meet closes.

"It's not like it was a complete unified front," Alempijevic said of the owners and trainers wanting the fall meet. "A lot of them wanted the summer racing, wanted to compete in front of the full stands. But they still need to make ends meet."

Alempijevic said Portland Meadows hopes to someday return to the summer schedule because it's hard to make a devoted fan — and off-track bettor — of someone who never experiences the thrill of a live race.

The track's future may ultimately rest with instant racing machines, which debut at the North Portland track on Jan. 1.

The machines resemble slots and take bets 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.

Officials hope the revenue from instant racing, which was developed by Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, will subsidize live racing and increase the size of purses for winning horse owners.

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