Image: Daniel Root
Many of the paintings at the center of OMFGCO’s campaign found their way to Meadows from sister tracks elsewhere.

If Portland Meadows was a slumbering piece of old Portland, the Official Manufacturing Company—better known by the acronym OMFGCO—has done much to define new Portland. The small creative agency, hatched three years ago by two veterans of the prominent ad firm Wieden & Kennedy, has shaped the graphic design, marketing, and even interior décor of many of the new businesses that mark Portland as an incubator of modern cool. OMFGCO and its principals helped design the identity of the Ace Hotel, packaging for Stumptown Coffee, and the look and feel of Spirit of ’77, a reinvented sports bar near the convention center. The firm has mastered a knowing mix of old and new, refined and scruffy, populist and hip. 

“If I breed a mare this year, that baby isn't going to be on the track making any kind of money—if it makes money, which most don’t—until about 2016.

—Racehorse owner Gay Welliver

 

“I hadn’t heard of them, but when I looked at what they’d done, I thought, well, yes,” says Alempijevic, who found his way to the firm via referrals. “These are the places I like to go. If these guys can create those images, maybe they can do something for us. They create instantly venerable brands—I don’t know a better way to put it.”

OMFGCO cofounders Fritz Mesenbrink and Jeremy Pelley immediately took to the challenge. “Will told us, ‘Not only are we losing money, but horse racing nationally is losing its audience. We’re going to be gone if we don’t do something. So—hey, no pressure!’” Mesenbrink, a 33-year-old Northwest native, recalls. 

On their first visit to the track, OMFGCO’s team stumbled upon a collection of richly colored vintage paintings—a random assortment, of many different ages and origins—depicting classic racing scenes. The agency decided this nostalgic imagery would be its touchstone. 

“We took a very brief look at the marketing other tracks do around the country,” Mesenbrink says. “It’s pretty bad. Most of them go for almost generic, modern pro sports branding, and it just doesn’t ring true at all. The real charm of horse racing is definitely old.”

“Those paintings were made decades ago,” Pelley adds. “But the basic look of horse racing has hardly changed—the horses, the jockeys’ silks. That’s not true of any other sport. We wanted to emphasize that classic appeal.” 

Image: Daniel Root

Last spring, with the summer meet’s July 17 launch just months away, OMFGCO created a stately new color scheme—a rusty orange and “bone”—and a simple new logo featuring an upright horseshoe and “1946,” the year of Meadows’ founding. “Nothing says ‘luck’ like a horseshoe,” Mesenbrink says. “And in a young city like Portland, being around since 1946 means something.”

The firm also custom-made eight small plastic horses and hid them around Portland, dispensing clues to their locations through Portland Meadows’ Facebook and Twitter accounts. People who found them—and, more to the point, snapped and shared photos of them using Instagram, drawing attention to Meadows on social media—entered a contest for $50 gambling vouchers. The firm also dispatched teams of humans wearing rubber horse masks to downtown’s Waterfront Blues Fest and the Mississippi Street Fair to distribute copies of the summer schedule. The citywide advertising campaign, featuring the paintings and the slogan “It’s your lucky day,” hit a few weeks before summer’s first race. 

And so the sales pitch became a crosshatch of pictures that would be at home in Granddad’s study, smart graphic design, and ploys aimed at a generation both fluent in status updates and obsessed with bygone style. 

Like all trends, the heritage vogue, now a few years old itself, can get a little silly. The world may not need quite as many small-batch moustache waxes or rough-hewn knapsacks as Portland, Brooklyn, and other nouveau old-school bastions now produce. At worst, the trend seems reactionary. At its best, though, it expresses respect for enduring quality. OMFGCO hoped to tap this spirit. 

“Technology moves so rapidly, and the population is huge,” Pelley says. “People want real connections and experiences. And it’s just a rare thing to stand with other people so close to so many horses going at top speed. It’s just not like anything else.”

On the first day of the new season, thousands turned out, many of them first-time track-goers. And many of these new potential fans, attracted by OMFGCO’s one-two punch of tweets and classic style, dressed to the nines in the skirts or suits—what they imagined horseplayers might have worn in the glory days of a sport most of them knew almost nothing about. 

Image: Daniel Root
One essential element of OMFGCO’s work: wayfinding signage to help patrons navigate the sprawling track

To the uninitiated, horse racing might evoke high-life stereotypes, from the wisecracking gamblers of Guys & Dolls to the sheikhs and billionaires who contest the Kentucky Derby. With her jeans, scuffed white tennis shoes, and Nordic-farm-girl features, Gay Welliver fits none of this imagery.

“I don’t own a dress,” the 60-year-old says. “Why would I? I’m in horse barns just about every waking minute.” When she’s not working with her four horses at the track or on her farm south of McMinnville, Welliver and her husband run a sheet-metal business to subsidize their racing passion. “This is the reason my husband gets up in the morning,” she says of the sport.

On a gorgeous day at the very end of summer, Welliver leads me through Portland Meadows’ “backside,” where most of the track’s racehorses live and train during the season. The Meadows complex sits amid the warehouses, gravel pits, and big-box stores that line I-5 just before it crosses into Washington. The backside, however, feels like a throwback to the days when North Portland was a patchwork of farm towns. Horses dwell in a series of low-slung barns, with dirt floors covered with hay and straw, and walls with chipped, crumbling paint. Young Hispanic grooms work with craggy-faced white trainers; wire-muscled women in helmets and safety flak jackets climb astride huge, snorting beasts.

Welliver has run horses at Meadows for about four decades. Her grandfather was, in her words, “a crazy old horseman”; she met her husband in a hay barn. She also serves as president of the Oregon Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association, which contracts with the track to provide horses for its races. “The beauty of this sport is astounding,” she says. “Once it bites you, I don’t think there’s a cure.”

“When that gate pops open and the horses just explode out—there's nothing like that. But you have to be there, or you'll never understand the thrill.

—Gay Welliver

 

She leads the way to a wooden platform overlooking the track’s backstretch. Horses stomp past on practice runs. Welliver explains that on the track, training riders must carefully steer horses in the direction opposite the way they run during races until they’re ready for full-throttle action. Each racehorse is the product of decades of carefully planned equine sex—some bloodlines could theoretically be traced back 300 years—and years of rigorous training. As soon as they’re pointed forward, horses are liable to explode into a sprint.

“They’re geared only for flight,” Welliver says. “The worst horse here trains like an Olympic athlete.” 

In horse racing, unlike most other sports, the key piece of equipment breathes, eats, and excretes. Owning even a single racing thoroughbred is a fantastically expensive, idiosyncratic pursuit. “Every horse here has as much as $25,000 sunk into it before it ever runs,” Welliver says. “I just paid $4,000 for oats. I’m going to buy $8,000 worth of hay this fall. I’d show you my tax return, but then I’d have to shoot myself.” 

Horsemen recoup by winning race purses. At Portland Meadows, purses tend to range from $3,000 to $5,000 per race, with occasional richer prizes like the $20,000 Don Jackson Futurity Stakes on Oregon Championship Day. “Most horses don’t make any money,” Welliver says. “Maybe every 10 years you get one that bails you out—wins enough that you can pay off your back property taxes, maybe buy a new truck. Maybe I should say that’s the one that keeps you hooked.”