Less than a year ago, southern Oregon’s Grants Pass Downs was something of a media darling in the horse betting press, receiving plaudits for its folksy, feminist focus from The New York Times and for its scheduling savvy from US Bets.
But last week, due to what track officials called “a wrong and deeply flawed” Oregon Department of Justice opinion on the legality of Historical Horse Racing (HHR) machines, Grants Pass Downs announced that it would not run its 2022 meet, leaving local horsemen and the future of Oregon horse racing in a lurch.
Long story short, Grants Pass Downs officials wanted to install some 225 HHR machines — which resemble slot machines, but with results based on parimutuel horse races from the past — at the Flying Lark, a $35 million entertainment facility adjacent to the track. Travis Boersma, the track’s owner and Dutch Bros. Coffee co-founder, said HHR proceeds were necessary to preserve much-needed jobs and racing at Oregon’s last proper horse track. But several Native American tribes, which are in full control of Oregon’s casino industry, opposed the machines, arguing that they would cut deeply into tribal gaming revenue and that they showed little connection to horse racing.
Despite the fact that the state legislature authorized HHRs in 2013, clearing the way for their installation at now-defunct Portland Meadows, Oregon’s DOJ ruled this February that they violated the state constitution’s prohibition on commercial casinos. In turn, the Oregon Racing Commission reluctantly declined to license HHRs for Grants Pass Downs.
Shortly after this turn of events, the track announced that Boersma would “personally fund the spring, summer, and fall race meets” — but that pledge was walked back with last week’s cancellation. As a result, some 250 jobs were eliminated at the track and the Flying Lark, with Grants Pass Downs President Randy Evers saying of the latter venue, “I know Travis is thinking about options, but nothing’s been settled on at this point.”
— Grants Pass Downs (@grantspassdowns) February 17, 2022
‘The horsemen have to do something’
The same could be said for live racing at the track, which sits on the Josephine County Fairgrounds. The Oregon Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) is engaged in a last-ditch effort to cobble together a short summer meet, which would involve renting the facility from the county, as well as racing equipment from Grants Pass Downs ownership.
Randy Boden, the executive director of the Oregon HBPA, told US Bets that he was hoping to have something pinned down by the end of this week, lest he lose jockeys and barns to other tracks.
“The horsemen have to do something,” Boden said as he prepared to debrief the racing commission at a Thursday meeting.
Added Evers, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Oregon Racing Commission wants to save racing.”
HHRs conceived as way to save Arkansas racing
Saving racing is exactly what Historical Horse Racing machines did in Arkansas around the turn of the 21st century, according to Eric Jackson.
“In the 1990s, all of the states around Arkansas started getting casinos and our business plummeted,” recalled Jackson, who managed Oaklawn Park back then. “We were limited to parimutuel wagering, so we had to try and come up with an electronic product that, at its core, was parimutuel wagering on racing. So we came up with Historic Racing. Not long after we got the patent, we changed the name to Instant Racing.”
To bring his vision to fruition, Jackson approached Ted Mudge of the gaming manufacturer Amtote, who said his initial reaction was, “Eric, if was that easy, it would have been done a long time ago.” But the two persisted, and eventually came up with a slot-like cabinet with results based on actual horse races, thus qualifying as parimutuel wagering.
After striking a deal with the Daily Racing Form for historical racing data, Mudge said, “We had to digitize at least 10,000 races and store them. Every race had to be 10 horses and we had to have every conceivable outcome. If you put in 6/5/4, you had to have a chance to win. We were getting down to the wire and we didn’t have all the combinations. My wife and two children, who were maybe 15 and 17, spent Christmas vacation at Amtote digitizing races. We got enough of them digitized to have every result.”
Machines designed to resemble slots
The early machines “looked more like horse racing than later generations,” said Jackson, “but the goal from the beginning was to try and have a unit that looked and felt familiar to people who had slot machines.”
“The important thing was to make the outcome similar to a slot machine,” Mudge explained. “If you expected to win $20 from one cherry and two bananas, we could design a game for something similar, even though it was parimutuel. It got much bigger and better than we thought it would.”
“The whole goal was to come up with a product to generate a revenue stream that Oaklawn could use to generate purses to save racing, and that’s what it did for us,” he added. “It saved Oaklawn, and it’s having a huge impact in Kentucky and other places. We always saw it as a way for racing to save itself without waiting for the white knight of casino gambling.”
While Mudge has since retired, Jackson is now Oaklawn’s senior vice president. The track no longer has any HHRs, which went the way of the phone booth once Oaklawn was allowed to add games of skill (video poker and the like) in the mid-‘00s and, later, the white knight — a full-on casino.
Now relatively flush, Oaklawn brass just spent $100 million “fixing up the place,” in Jackson’s words.
“We’ve got a hotel, a resort, a multi-event center,” he said. “The hotel overlooks the racetrack. There’s nothing else like it in America. You wake up with your coffee and watch the horses work out.”
Photo: Tony Centonze/The Leaf-Chronicle