A Day at the Track
Portland Meadows: The Jockeys
A gibbous moon hung over a hazy view of Mount Hood one night in late summer, as eight horses trotted out for the evening’s fifth race at Portland Meadows. A few hundred spectators milled alongside the 66-year-old track, many clutching white slips of paper recording bets on the very near future.
A brawny, Washington-bred filly named Giacomina entered the gate as the heavy favorite. But as thousands of pounds of muddy, glistening flesh piloted by tiny, tensed humans barreled down the homestretch, a rival named Fantasyville, born in the horsey heartland of Kentucky, ripped past her. Many of the people along the dirt wall and fence at the edge of the spectators’ area crumpled their white slips. In horse racing’s world of muscular beauty and financial chance, there’s no such thing as a safe bet.
This summer, Portland Meadows took a much bigger gamble on a long shot: itself. Beset by a shrinking local audience and stagnant revenues, Oregon’s only commercial horse track switched from racing in Portland’s muddy winter to running horses in the sun. The track also changed its logo, made over its signature colors, renovated its grandstand, and launched a high-profile advertising campaign featuring atmospheric, antique paintings of horses and jockeys.
“We’ve missed a whole generation,” says Ron Sutton, who owns horses who run at Meadows. “My son is 29, and he’s into it because I’m into it. His friends generally couldn’t care less. We need fresh blood in this game.”
On November 18, Meadows will gauge its progress so far when it hosts Oregon Championship Day, its season’s biggest (and, for victorious horse owners, most lucrative) occasion. If the effort works, the old track tucked into industrial North Portland could become a beacon of hope for an otherwise fading sport. If it doesn’t, people like Sutton, for whom horse racing is a business, a pastime, and often an obsession, could find themselves with nowhere left to run.
When Will Alempijevic was about 5, his dad started taking him to the track in Toronto. A tool-and-dye plant worker from Serbia, his father had discovered fraternity there. “You see Asians over here, guys from the Caribbean over there,” Alempijevic says. “The Eastern Europeans sit together. I’m sure that another Serb took my dad for his first visit, and it just became his social scene.”
Some people get into racing for the camaraderie, others for gambling, others for the animals themselves. As he grew up, Alempijevic gravitated to the vast statistical arcana horses generate as they race. “I learned to read a race program before many more important things,” he says. “How does a horse do on a specific surface? Does the trainer succeed when his horses switch from short distances to long distances? It becomes endless.”
A lanky 33-year-old who wears modish, slim-cut suits and skinny plaid ties at work, Alempijevic (pronounced “A-lem-pee-yevich”) came to Portland to work at Meadows six years ago, dispatched by the track’s Canadian parent company, for which he’d worked at an Ontario track. He became general manager two years later. A cynic might compare this job to running the world’s last vaudeville troupe or steam-engine railway. Horse racing once formed American sports’ macho trinity along with boxing and baseball. (Until after World War II, pro football was almost minor league, pro basketball barely existed, hockey had only six top-tier teams, and soccer was basically for immigrants only.) Local tracks dominated newspaper sports pages and drew huge crowds. When Portland Meadows opened in 1946, more than 10,000 Portlanders turned out and in a single night bet $140,000—over $1.7 million in today’s dollars. The Oregonian lavished coverage on the city’s “brand-new, million-dollar track.”
Except for the tradition-laden Triple Crown races, the sport now resides in a shrinking netherworld of its own. Horse racing has its own nomenclature: a season is a “meet”; race distances are often expressed in furlongs, a unit of measure officially used only in Myanmar. It has its own publications, like the Blood-Horse and Daily Racing Form. The subculture grows ever more remote from mainstream sports. A 2010 New York Times report noted that the “handle”—the total amount bet—for races in New York state is now about one-fifth of what it was in the 1970s, and plummeting.
Meadows doesn’t disclose specific financial information, but Alempijevic doesn’t sugarcoat the situation. “In the six years I’ve been here, we have not made money,” he says. “In fact, our losses have been fairly substantial.”
People who love the sport cite many reasons for its decline, from the suburbanization of ethnic communities to racing’s failure to translate on TV. (“It’s like a play or an opera,” says Gay Welliver, a Meadows horse owner. “You have to see it live, or you just don’t get it.”) Nationally, animal-welfare concerns kick up squalls of bad press. Tracks seldom charge admission and rely almost entirely on gambling revenues, and so must compete with lotteries, casinos, and video poker.
“Racing once had a unique footprint,” says Randy Evers, executive director of the Oregon Racing Commission, the state agency that regulates the sport here. “You came to the track, or you took a cheap flight to Reno.”
Meadows’ business affairs have often reflected racing’s murky prospects. In 2001, a spin-off of the publicly traded Canadian auto parts supplier Magna International added Meadows to a portfolio of tracks that includes Baltimore’s famed Pimlico, home of the Triple Crown’s Preakness Stakes. In 2008, a Washington Post story reported that Magna’s tracks had lost $113.8 million the previous year, when the company had also publicized its desire to sell Portland Meadows. It entered bankruptcy in 2009, and a different spin-off of the same parent company took over the tracks.
Last year, that company transferred the tracks to yet another entity, the privately held Stronach Group, in a complex stock-swap deal. This Toronto-based firm is named for chairman Frank Stronach, a billionaire Austrian-Canadian who founded Magna in the first place and who cuts a prominent, flamboyant figure on the international racing scene. (The 80-year-old Stronach has also started an Austrian political party and owned a Vienna soccer team.) The rearranged ownership has so far been supportive of Meadows—for example, funding $600,000 in capital improvements to the grandstand. However, the Stronach Group, like any for-profit company, cannot brook endless losses.
For the track’s GM, the quest for new revenue faced several obstacles, chief among them Meadows’ dismal winter schedule. But changing seasons was not as straightforward as it sounds. For years, many horses ran in Portland in the winter and at Seattle’s Emerald Downs in the summer. A shift here would force the tracks to compete for both equine and jockey talent. Alempijevic managed to convince both his bosses in Canada and Oregon’s horse owners to make the switch, but many Northwest enthusiasts remain skeptical.
“Overlappin’ don’t work,” says Howard Belvoir, one of the region’s most respected horsemen. Belvoir started training racehorses in 1962 and has competed at both Meadows and Emerald Downs for decades. From his perspective, Alempijevic’s move will damage both tracks, shrinking fields and reducing prize money paid to race winners. “The old arrangement worked for a long time—16, 17 years,” he says. “This is going to be very tough.”
Presenting a more profound challenge, Portlanders seemed to have simply forgotten about Meadows. In the writing of local novelist and songwriter Willy Vlautin, the track figures as a vestige of hardscrabble, blue-collar life. Otherwise, its cultural traction was almost nil.
“When people would ask me where I work, I’d say, ‘At the track,’” Alempijevic says. “And they’d say, ‘Oh, the greyhound track? I thought that closed down.’ I’d say the horse track, and they’d say they thought that closed down, too. You can do market studies or whatever you want. I knew where we stood. We need to be popular. We need people to know who we are.”
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