While horse racing aficionados may already be hip to the possibility of a coming showdown between Auburn's Emerald Downs and its neighbor to the south, Portland Meadows, those who don't follow the sport might be surprised to hear that more horse racing may not always be a good thing for fans or competition.
Quite simply, there may not be enough quality horses to go around. Daily Racing Form reported last year that the, "average field size during Portland's most recent meeting was 7.45 runners per race. At Emerald Downs, halfway through its 82-day stand, the average field size is 6.85."
More than anything, shrinking horse racing fields are a direct result of fewer horses and horse owners entering the sport. While Emerald Downs Vice President Jack Hodge says there are actually more horses on Emerald Down grounds than last year, regionally everyone in the horse-racing industry has been touched by the downturn.
"On the West Coast we're struggling for horse population," explains Hodge, who also says that four years ago Emerald Downs had a full barn area with every stall occupied, and now that's simply not the case. "Everyone is struggling to fill races and get strong field size."
Emerald Downs starts its season April 13, running through Sept. 23. The new Portland Meadows summer racing season will kick off in mid-July and conclude in mid-December, placing the track in head-to-head competition with Emerald Downs for most of July and all of August and September. The two tracks are 150 miles apart.
With horse owners now forced to choose between the two, thanks to Portland Meadows' decision to race in the summer, already shrinking fields may be stretched even thinner.
"We wish Portland success, of course. We want all tracks to be successful," offers Emerald Downs Director of Media Relations Vince Bruun, who says the big concern is whether there are enough quality horses to go around with simultaneous racing at our region's three big metropolitan areas - in Auburn at Emerald Downs, in Portland at Portland Meadows and in Vancouver, B.C. at Hastings Racecourse.
"We're pretty confident we'll be able to maintain a decent racing program this summer," says Bruun, "but it's obviously something we've got an eye on."
"I would say I don't have a huge concern. If I was to describe it I'd say just mildly concerned, until something proves different," says Hodge. "It may end up not having any impact. "
Bruun tells Seattle Weekly that Emerald Downs will likely have a better idea of just how much summer racing at Portland Meadows will impact the track in the coming weeks. Both tracks will likely attempt to lure out-of-state horses to bolster fields - something that's not new to this season.
"In a perfect world we'd like to have between eight, nine and even 10 starters per race - simply because the bettors prefer races with a lot of horses in them, because the potential for a big payoff is much greater and you can get much better odds on horses in a race with larger fields," says Bruun. "Our number one concern is field size."
At Portland Meadows, track announcer and media contact Jason Beem says maintaining field size is also at the forefront of people's minds.
"It's certainly a concern. I don't think anyone is denying that," offers Beem, who says Portland Meadows will be proactive about trying to attract new horses from California and beyond.
One advantage Emerald Downs has in attracting horsemen is purse size. Typically, Hodge says Emerald Downs awards purses two to three times the size of purses at Portland Meadows.
"The horsemen want to run where the money is, and we're going to have quite a bit more in purse money," says Hodge, also noting money isn't the only factor - some Oregon-based horsesmen may simply be interested in racing closer to home.
Beem agrees, while also noting that the overlap of racing seasons won't prohibit horses from continuing to run at both tracks when scheduling permits.
"There are certainly going to be horses that race at Emerald as opposed to here - they race for more money," says Beem, classifying the coming schedule overlap as, "not terribly long, but a significant amount of time."
"There is going to be three months worth of racing at Portland Meadows after Emerald Downs' (season) ends, so if trainers are going to run in both, it's still possible," Beem says.
For his part, Hodge isn't overly concerned.
"I don't see an end to Portland horses shipping up here, even when we overlap," says Hodge. "Horses that maybe can't compete here on a certain level might go down there."
Jim Fergason, president of the Oregon Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, spoke to Daily Racing Form last July to shed light on the upcoming change at Portland Meadows.
"Frank Stronach wanted to try a summer meet; he felt like he needed a change at Portland Meadows, just to try something different," Fergason said. "He was willing to try it, and we had to go along with it or face the alternative. We didn't know what the alternative was going to be."
"Our options are few, and we're willing to do it because we want to make this work," Fergason said at the time. "Track management has a lot of ideas for what they want to do in the summertime, and we're not in a position to tell them it won't work. It's hard to tell someone how to run their business."
William Alempijevic, general manager of Portland Meadows, was also quoted in Daily Racing Form piece, saying he wasn't certain how the local horse racing scene would be impacted by the transition.
"It's definitely an unknown," he said. "We're going to have to investigate a lot further and hopefully have more discussions with the folks at Emerald, the people at Grants Pass, the entire industry in the Northwest. One thing to remember is that when we race in the winter, owners don't really get a chance to enjoy their horses running at Portland Meadows. They can't have that true experience of being an owner, and we hope that by running in the summer, running on weekends, that we can reinvigorate the act of owning a racehorse."
While there's a possibility of negative repercussions, and of riders choosing to race at Emerald Downs instead of Portland Meadows because the track distributes more purse money, officials from Portland Meadows tell the Daily Racing Form that there's no choice; something had to change, because the old setup wasn't working. Money wagered at Portland Meadows declined 14-percent in 2010-11, and officials from the track say fan interest needed a boost.
These sentiments were echoed by Beem, who tells Seattle Weekly that despite the obvious concerns about maintaining field sizes, there really was no choice but to make the jump into summer racing.
"Our whole big intent is to invigorate our local market. We've been running in the winter, during the week. Horse racing being an outdoor sport, it's tough to get people to come out when it's 35 degrees outside," says Beem. "The hope is this will actually save racing down here, and make it viable again."
Despite the necessity for a change at Portland Meadows, and the fact it may make life more difficult at Emerald Downs, Hodge says officials from Portland Meadows may be more concerned about the situation than he is.
"If I'm mildly concerned, they're probably moderately to maybe a little more concerned, simply because they have a lot of things they'll be doing that they haven't ever done before," says Hodge, citing differences between maintaining a winter versus summer racing surface, in addition to the possible challenges of attracting Portland's "young demographic" in an Oregon summer full of possible activities.
"I don't think concern is the word. I think we're excited," says Beem of the challenge in front of Portland Meadows. "I think people think this is kind of the last big hurrah, to kind of turn it around. It can't get worse. The mood here and the vibe here is just going to get better. It'll be more challenging, more fun, and there'll be more going on.
"The mood down here is very optimistic."
"We harbor absolutely no ill will toward Portland Meadows. The two tracks have always had a fine relationship," offers Bruun. "Certainly we're concerned. We're interested in it. In an ideal world, both tracks would be successful this summer. There's nothing wrong with having a healthy thoroughbred industry in the Pacific Northwest. Traditionally what's been good for one has been good for the other. Hopefully that continues."