At the time, Portland Meadows was owned by the three Wineberg sisters, who eventually wound up on different sides of a lawsuit. Faulconer was right, there were some creditors tap-dancing on the track's grave in the 1980s, but now Frank Stronach and his Magna Entertainment combine own the place, and while the track has been on the block, its obituary has been sent to the back burner. Even Magna's bankruptcy filing can't kill the joint. "Portland Meadows has been going out of business almost every year for the last 40 years," said Jack Root, a track veterinarian, in an interview with the Portland Oregonian. "It's just really incredible that they're still here. And still making money. Not much. But they're making money."
Last 40 years? Portland Meadows opened in 1945, the brainchild of Bill Kyne, the founder of Bay Meadows, and was virtually stillborn. Kyne dispatched his new son-in-law, Bob Gunderson, to Portland as operations manager, and in 1948 Gunderson was greeted by a devastating flood when the Columbia River overran its banks. A nearby town was wiped out, Portland's meet was canceled and damages were estimated at a quarter-million dollars. There is a photo of Gunderson in a rowboat, surveying what was once the barn area, and trying to determine how they could move the horses to high ground.
In 1970, an early-morning fire wiped out the grandstand. (However innocent, the juxtaposition of a flood and a fire always remind me of that hoary joke, the one in which the two Miami Beach restaurateurs meet by accident on the street. "I'm retired," says one. "The restaurant burned down and I live off the insurance." "Me, too," the other one says, "my restaurant flooded and I collected big-time on the insurance." "Tell me," the first one says, "how do you start a flood?")
Portland Meadows reopened again in 1971. The track is more known for cheap horses than cameo appearances by Bill Shoemaker and Gary Stevens, who was Portland's leading rider twice during his formative years. Nowadays, Portland Meadows subsists because of out-of-state betting and cagey marketing strategies. Several companies have their betting hubs in Oregon, which is a billion-dollar-a-year business. Less than half of 1% of that handle goes to state tracks, but that's still a nice windfall.
This season, which runs through the end of March, Portland Meadows is open on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The rest of the time, it's a site for intertrack betting around the country. Only Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays would be a death warrant for most tracks, but for Portland Meadows those days make sense. They are days when many tracks are dark, which means that there's a demand for product then. The rest of the week, Portland would be dwarfed by major tracks if it conducted live racing; instead, it reaps the benefits of off-track betting.
Several years ago, the Portland handle doubled, then a few years back it mushroomed by more than 100%, averaging more than a half-million dollars a day for the first time. Portland's rainy weather can still get in the way, but from Thursday through Sunday, it doesn't make any difference. As long as the California, New York, Kentucky and Florida tracks are in high gear, the Portland coffers will be all right.
Portland Meadows doesn't stand still. For this meet, they introduced a pick-four bet with only a 14% takeout. Takeout here had been 22% on that bet, which approximated the levy at most tracks. But there are some things management can't control, such as the act-of-God clause. Two days before Thanksgiving, sub-freezing weather canceled an entire card. The next day, only one race could be run as the track again froze over. Then four Southern California jockeys--Joe Rosario, Joe Talamo, David Flores and Martin Pedroza--canceled their appearance in what had become a popular Portland promotion, the XpressBet Jockey Challenge. Portland Meadows will survive that setback. It always has.