The clubhouse at Portland Meadows
Image: Daniel Root
Racing’s aging core audience poses a major concern to those who love the sport.

Those small potential payoffs rely on a delicate financial infrastructure. Twelve years ago, Oregon became the first state in the nation to license Internet-based horse betting. As a result, several major online gambling operations, known as “hubs,” located here, and currently rake in about $2 billion a year. Those hubs pay around $4.6 million in fees to the state of Oregon. Some of that goes to the general fund. Most, about $2.66 million, goes to “racing development”—i.e., subsidizing the sport. The state bankrolls rural county-fair race meets in places like Burns, Prineville, and Tillamook, where every horseman who competes ceremoniously receives a fat block of cheese. 

Meadows receives subsidies, too: Internet gambling fees boost many of the purses the track offers winning horses. As the state’s only commercial track, it anchors the entire racing subculture here. The horsemen and women agree that if the track folds, horse racing in Oregon will almost certainly die. “It’s hard to imagine many people wanting to keep thoroughbreds just to race at county fairs,” Sutton says.

“Our industry is very resistant to change. I think horse-racing people share an image of the sport as important and prestigious, and don’t see the need to change.

—Will Alempijevic

The expenses involved, along with a steady decrease in the number of race days and tracks all across the country, explain why fewer racehorses are born each year. A recent issue of the Thoroughbred Times read with the grim sobriety of a climate-change report: “The number of foals produced annually in North America has declined for seven consecutive years.” (The magazine itself shut down in September.) This year’s total of 22,500 racehorses born depresses Welliver. “I remember crops from the ’70s of well over 50,000,” she says. “The last few years have been devastating.”

As we walk the backside, Welliver points out the preponderance of gray hair. “A lot of people out here are able to do this because they’re on Social Security,” she says. “A lot of other people get up at four o’clock in the morning, come here, then go to their full-time jobs. No one is here for money.” 

Welliver sees her little tribe as an embattled remnant of another way of life. “We’ve moved from an agrarian society to an urban society,” she says. “People used to know horses, and be around horses. That has just gone away. And horse racing has never had a national league. We have no NFL. The major sports leagues keep their smaller franchises in the game for the good of the whole. There’s no one out there looking out for Portland Meadows.”

As the horses storm around the track, it occurs to me that if this scene somehow instantly vanished—magically replaced by a profitable big-box franchise with easy highway access, perhaps—few would notice. One could argue that the fate of Meadows, and the passions, trades, and rituals that orbit the track, doesn’t matter much. Few notice when an indigenous language loses its last native speaker, or an obscure creature slips into extinction. In any such case, you don’t know what you had until it’s gone. 

“If this track goes out of business, what do I even need a farm for?” Welliver says. “There’s not a person here who’s not holding their breath, hoping this will work.”

 

As the new summer-to-fall season races to its end, attendance at Meadows is up dramatically, with even quiet race days typically drawing about 1,000 people. “In the winter, we might have had 200 people some days, and half of those would be horsemen,” Alempijevic says. Dollar-beer nights and an infield pool party have made inroads to the younger, plugged-in crowd the track and OMFGCO tacitly targeted. 

On the other hand, these new fans wager conservatively. In the summer meet’s first full week, on-site bets amounted to just over $130,000. As of press time, the weekly handle hadn’t hit that level again, with totals of just over $90,000 more typical. That’s higher than most weeks in the now-discarded winter season, but not dramatically so. 

Alempijevic and others around the track seem willing to trade a slow financial start for visibility. “I’m absolutely thrilled,” says horse owner Sutton, who also serves as vice president of Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association, a charitable group that looks out for people involved in the sport. “I remember days in the ’70s when you couldn’t get a seat in the grandstand, and so I love seeing people out there again.” On some race days, Sutton roams the track wearing a sash marking him as an “ambassador,” placing bets for confused-looking visitors out of a small kitty of money set aside by his organization.

For all of OMFGCO’s clever branding, the critical mechanism for turning new fans into money hides behind a code that’s tough for newbies to crack. The race program’s dense statistics look like sporting calculus on first glance, and bettors can attempt all kinds of fancy combination wagers—exactas, trifectas, and so on—dependent on specific performances by multiple horses.  

Alempijevic understands that introducing the sport’s complexities is a major part of his task. “No one is going to place a huge bet the first time,” he says. “They shouldn’t. Our core gamblers tend to be retirees, people with time and money on their hands. But no one is going to become a dedicated horseplayer when they turn 65 if they’ve never seen the sport. It’s like, if you’ve never seen a cricket match, you’re not going to start playing cricket the day you retire.”

Then there is the event itself, which requires an internal shift of gears for the average modern sports fan. Each race takes maybe a minute and a half. With just eight races on the average four-hour program, there’s a lot of time to kill. But it turns out that after one race ends, there’s time to check the program, get a drink, and wander into Meadows’ indoor paddock to inspect the next contestants.

The paddock is Meadows’ real theater: a dramatic, circular space ringed with a transparent wall and a sloped concrete walkway. In the middle, horses are saddled and jockeys mount up in a cluster of little three-walled pens. You can inspect the horses’ ripped haunches, evaluate their demeanor, see which one chooses to unburden its bowels. Then, as the fields head out, there’s time enough to place a bet and maybe get another drink before the race. 

Meanwhile, Meadows’ new crowds present one of Portland’s most delightfully mixed-up scenes. White, black, Asian, and Hispanic faces mingle. Cowboy-hat-wearing country dudes work the horses. Leather-skinned gamblers straight from the two-fisted urban world of a Bukowski novel study the program. The rookies attracted by OMFGCO’s campaign stick out in their snappy retro hats and skirts, but add whimsy, style, and raw numbers to the scene. 

This may all prove a minor footnote in a once-great sport’s decline. Alempijevic knows he’s trying to invent a new future for racing, not revive lost glory days. “Our track was built when 10,000 people would come out,” he says. “We may never see 10,000 people here again. That’s not defeatist, just realistic.”

On the other hand, 10 years ago few imagined 20,000 Portlanders regularly packing into soccer games. Now the Timbers—buoyed by a bold advertising campaign on which OMFGCO also collaborated—sell out every home match. Fifteen or 20 years ago, almost no one cared where or by whom their beer was brewed; now Portland has more breweries than Munich. As fixed as a culture’s trajectory may seem, a well-timed jolt can change its course. 

The Portland Meadows grandstand is divided into two sections, only one of which is currently in use. The double glass doors leading to the closed area are padlocked shut, but you can peer through at an austere but elegant concrete terrace, color-coded benches, and a high, wood-beamed ceiling. “The day I have to unlock that door,” Alempijevic says, “I’ll know we’ve succeeded.” 

SLIDE SHOW: PORTLAND MEADOWS: THE JOCKEYS

Image: Daniel Root