Grants Pass Downs, Oregon’s last surviving commercial thoroughbred racetrack, has canceled its race meet for 2022.
The track cited a recent decision by the state racing regulator to deny its application for 225 historical horse racing (HHR) machines at its new entertainment center, the Flying Lark.
Dutch Bros Coffee magnate and local boy Travis Boersma acquired Grants Pass Downs in 2019. He hoped to fund the upkeep of the track and finance race purses with profits from the adjacent Flying Lark, envisaged as a dining, drinking, and gambling establishment.
But it wasn’t to be. The Oregon Racing Commission (ORC) reluctantly nixed the application in February, leaving itself with precious little racing to regulate.
Gov. Brown Pressure
HHR machines let gamblers bet on replays of past races with the identities of those races obscured. They have been legal at Oregon racetracks since 2012. That’s because they broadly use the pari-mutuel betting system.
But earlier this year, the Oregon DOJ issued an opinion that HHR machines were more like slots and lottery games than the pari-mutuel horse race betting permitted at racetracks.
The agency said than no more 75 HHRs should be allowed at any one venue, otherwise it would violate the state ban on casinos. Currently, only Native American tribes are permitted to offer casino gaming in Oregon, under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
In a letter dated February 16, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) told the ORC board it would be more than their jobs were worth to vote against “any action inconsistent with the law, as interpreted by the Oregon Department of Justice.”
“As a result of the Oregon Racing Commission’s vote to deny an operating license to The Flying Lark, Grants Pass Downs has lost its economic engine,” said Travis Boersma in a statement this week.
“While we remained hopeful we would be able to host a viable race meet, the uncertainty here and across the industry has resulted in a drastic reduction of race horses at Grants Pass Downs,” he aded. “At this point, it’s clear running the meet isn’t feasible.”
This is a far cry from Boersma’s stated ambition of transforming his hometown into a national epicenter of racing. The cancelation of the 2022 calendar will lead to the loss of around 50 jobs. He has already said he will have to let more than 200 workers go at the Flying Lark.
Boersma blamed the “state and its leadership’s lack of understanding of, and appreciation for, the equine industry and the needs of rural Oregon” for the track’s predicament. He has hinted that he may pursue the matter through the courts.
Gov. Brown’s hand may have been forced by a coalition of local tribes that demanded she rigorously examine Boersma’s plans, arguing they would “fundamentally alter gambling in the state to the detriment of tribal casinos.”
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