PORTLAND It’s two minutes before post time for the first horse race of the season at Portland Meadows and the odds to win seem more favorable than betting on Wall Street.
Moments later the starting gate bell rings and the horses are off. It’s dreary outside on this early October day and rain has turned the track into a muddy slop. The horses stream past an odds scoreboard that resembles a stock exchange ticker.
The business of horse racing isn’t just rough in a bad economy; the Meadows, Oregon’s only racetrack, has to compete against the state lottery and Indian casinos for gambling dollars. On the opening day of the 2008-2009 season, while 401(k) plans were losing value and the unemployment rate was rising, racing managers were keeping their expectations modest.
“We just wanted the day to go off without a hitch,” says William Alempijevic, the track’s GM. Admission is free so the track gauges turnout by beer sales, the number of cars in the parking lot and how many racing programs are sold.
More important is the size of the day’s handle, industry jargon for how much money is wagered. On this day, the handle is just over $150,000, a 5% increase from last year’s opening day. But the kicker is that most of that amount is from out-of-state satellite wagering facilities, not from gamblers at the track. At-track betting was down 12% from last year, while out-of-state betting increased 18%.
Bets from outside of Oregon are precisely what Alempijevic hopes will keep the track in business, because horses run live there on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday in the winter when other tracks around the country traditionally are closed.
So far it’s worked since the new schedule was adopted three years ago. But the overall horse-racing industry is down about 5% this year, a dip Alempijevic blames partly on the economic crisis.
Betting on horses, like betting on stocks, can be a costly game. But in down times one looks for any sign of hope. In the fourth race a young Oregon-bred named Mystacallie, declared by the announcer as the “people’s horse,” won.
Just then, the rain let up a bit.
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