Regulators and stakeholders in Oregon are making tentative plans for the state's four-track fairs circuit to be back in action in this summer after getting cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
But Oregon Racing Commission (ORC) executive director Jack McGrail said during a Feb. 18 meeting he expects those venues will need to be supported by some forms of outside funding in order to conduct mixed Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse meets in 2021.
“I'm happy to report that the larger takeaway is that the fairs really do want to run this year,” McGrail said while recapping the highlights of a recent conference call among industry stakeholders. “They are cautiously optimistic that with protocols in place and some improvements in the overall COVID numbers they'll be able to put on racing.”
The Eastern Oregon Livestock Show meet in Union traditionally kicks off the summer fairs circuit in June. Crooked River Roundup in Prineville, which races at night and generally attracts the largest handles and average attendances in Oregon, races in July. Tillamook County Fair in Tillamook (August) and Harney County Fair in Burns (September) round out the circuit.
Grants Pass Downs, which transitioned from a fairs track to being the lone commercial licensee in Oregon last season after the closure of Portland Meadows, will race two extended meets that don't overlap with the fairs, from May through July and September through November.
McGrail said that the concerns of operators were focused on how to keep crowds manageable relative to pandemic restrictions while making sure there would be enough attendees to generate sustainable revenue.
Keeping fans socially distanced in a fairgrounds setting was one issue that came up. Plus the fairs are also primarily staffed by volunteers, who thus far have expressed a health-related reluctance to commit.
McGrail added that the tracks are exploring technologies that would allow fans to place wagers without having to walk up to mutuel windows. But one concern in that area has to do with making sure those bets get counted as on-track wagers, “which is a significant issue, because there's a lot more money and revenue for the operator when they're on-track wagers,” he said.
“These limitations might require that there be an influx of money from sources, whether it's the ORC and/or others, to allow the fairs to run,” McGrail said. “All of the summer fairs are going to need more funding just to operate in this environment.
“But I do applaud the fairs for all of their innovation and commitment to running, and I think it's important to racing in Oregon to keep these fairs going to the extent that we can,” McGrail said.
McGrail said that the next step in the process would be for the fairs to submit financial data to the ORC prior to the Mar. 18 meeting, which is when budgeting issues will be taken up. This will enable the ORC to “review what the commission might be able to offer and what the fairs are requesting,” he said.