PORTLAND — Since opening in 1946, the Portland Meadows racetrack has withstood a fire that burned its grandstand to the ground and the massive flood that eliminated Vanport City. But it might not survive the exodus of gamblers who prefer the simplicity of slot machines to the inscrutable numbers inside the Daily Racing Form.
To help the North Portland track stay afloat, the Oregon Senate on Thursday gave final legislative approval to a bill allowing Portland Meadows to add electronic gambling machines known as Instant Racing devices.
The machines resemble slots and the bets are made on actual races from the past. The old races are on video, but horse names are withheld so bettors can’t know the winner in advance. Gamblers could visit the track site year-round to place bets on the machines.
As with live horse racing — and unlike slot machines — it is a pari-mutuel form of gambling in which bets are pooled against other players rather than against the house.
Track representatives say the electronic machines will attract younger, video-oriented people to the sport, and the extra money will boost purses for winning horse owners competing in live races. Track officials hope bigger purses would bring more horses and more excitement to their live races.
“It definitely provides a stable footing and allows us to generate revenue for higher purses and to cover all of those high-operational costs of running 101 acres and having a barn area,” general manager Will Alempijevic said Thursday.
Portland Meadows has yet to announce a 2013 schedule following a season in which the already struggling track saw a steep drop in the amount of money wagered on live races.
Oregon’s only commercial horse racing track moved to a summer schedule last year and used a retro-themed advertising campaign to win new customers. Attendance increased, but the bottom line plunged.
The new fans tended to place modest bets, while the people who do most of the gambling on Portland Meadows races — those who wager online or at off-track betting facilities across the United States — were turned off by the change.
Before 2012, Portland Meadows raced on Monday and Wednesday afternoons in winter, a schedule that left it with relatively little competition for off-track wagering money. Moving to summer and racing at times when major tracks were operating, such as Sunday afternoons, made it an afterthought for off-track handicappers.
Moreover, the shift put Portland Meadows in a losing competition for horses with Emerald Downs in Seattle, leaving the track with too many unattractive races in which there were only five horses competing at short odds.
Louis Cella, the vice president of Oaklawn Park, the Arkansas track that started Instant Racing in 2000, said the electronic machines saved live racing at Oaklawn by allowing it to offer more-lucrative purses to improve the number and quality of horses.
During its most recent meet, Oaklawn distributed about $400,000 a day in purses, more than double what was offered in 2000. Cella said about one-third of the money came from the Instant Racing machines.
“In the 10 years leading up to 2004, the Oaklawn horses won two Triple Crown races,” he said. “From 2004 and beyond, there have been 29 Triple Crown races; Oaklawn horses have won 10 of them.”
Portland Meadows distributed about $40,000 in purses per day during its last meet and is several rungs below Oaklawn in the world of thoroughbred racing, so it might be some time before the Delta Park oval becomes a step on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
Regardless, Alempijevic and legislative backers hope Instant Racing provides a pathway to survival for an Oregon business that bridges the urban-rural divide.
“We know it’s not a viable business without it,” Alempijevic said. “This is something we believe in and we will give it every chance it can to succeed.”
The bill passed the Senate unanimously after clearing the House last month on a 39-16 vote. Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, not a fan of expanded gambling, has not said if he will sign it. His spokesman, Tim Raphael, said Thursday that the governor will review it when it gets to his desk.
The House and Senate could override a veto with the support of two-thirds of the members present in each chamber.
“All you have to do is watch the Kentucky Derby or Preakness to see the beauty of this industry,” Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said before the vote.