From the paddock to the bank

Portland Meadows and the uncertain future of horse racing

Canada geese flew against a backdrop of blue and the sun warmed a thin crowd. Spectators idled at picnic tables, sipping beers, studying race guides.

Portland Meadows and the uncertain future of horse racing

Canada geese flew against a backdrop of blue and the sun warmed a thin crowd. Spectators idled at picnic tables, sipping beers, studying race guides.

As the horses walked off the track and into the paddock, some of the crowd picked up their young children and followed them inside. They squeezed into the circular room and held their kids up to see the thoroughbreds just beyond the chain-link fence and concrete barrier, where trainers saddled them. Then the horses walked back into the sun, leaving only the odor of equine hide behind.

It’s a soily aroma that is gone and forgotten once out of the paddock, when it’s immediately replaced with the smell of money. Unfortunately, this smell is fading.

There was a time when horse racing held a monopoly on legal gambling. But other betting options like Powerball, video lottery, scratch-offs and casinos have siphoned the attention of the racing crowd. This year, Portland Meadows has responded with a brand new ad campaign, which they hope will draw in new patrons and the dollars in their pockets. And on the surface, it seems to be working.

“Attendance has increased exponentially and we have introduced many new and lapsed customers to our track,” said Will Alempijevic, Portland Meadows’ general manager.

Just getting people to attend the races won’t save the sport, though—the audience needs to engage, a problem which isn’t confined to the Meadows and doesn’t end at the betting windows. Nationwide, interest in horse racing has waned, along with boxing and other formerly mainstream individual sports. The handles are getting smaller and smaller as the crowds continue to dwindle. People are going elsewhere for their gambling needs, or never had any interest to begin with.

Many in my generation fall into this second category, a generation for whom horse racing is widely considered a thing of the past. But for me, racing is still exciting: all the gripping suspense of a close football game or soccer match crammed into half a minute. And at Portland Meadows, even the seats closest to the action are free.

Out in the stands, the trumpet sounded, drawing the crowd back to their seats. As usual, most people were quiet as the horses circled, showing off the owners’ silks. Perhaps they were simply eyeing the odds. As people placed their final bets, the race odds changed up on the jumbo screen: 9-1 odds jumped to 5-2; 4-1 became 2-1. People furrowed their brows, peering at tickets, deciding whether or not they should change their bets. Some who sat out of the sun in lawn chairs kept their poker faces on and nodded their heads, as if they expected these final numbers.

The announcer reminded the crowd that it was just one minute to post, and so most of the unsure remained, now even less certain that they would make it back to their tables in time to catch the action if they went inside to re-bet. It was a one-mile, 70-yard race, so the gates were on the far side of the track, hidden away behind the jumbo board with orange digital numbers glowing on it, beyond the geese and blue sky.

“It is hard to say how long the track will be open,” Alempijevic said. “We have a viable product and an industry with a strong economic impact to the state, but we have very significant costs in running the business. Portland Meadows has been under financial duress for some time now.”

The horses were in the gate, the announcer said, and then they were off. A few people scanned the track with large binoculars. A few rocked babies side to side or held toddlers up to see.

Then the horses darted into the scene, a jumble of argyle silk and chestnut hide. Grumbles grew to shouts, and people began to slap their race guides on their knees and hands. People rocked with the rhythm of the announcer, rocked with the horses as they rounded the track. They shouted as the sound of hooves approached, smiled and squealed, frowned and growled as the horses thundered past and through the finish line.

And just like that, the excitement was over. The winning horse slowed to a walk and then doubled back toward the winner’s circle, where its photo was taken amid a cluster of onlookers along with the jockey, the trainer and the owner.

The sun crouched behind the clubhouse, leaving the track in a cool shadow, a shadow filled with hope for the rest of this season and for the one beyond it. The crowd shifted in an immense wave and then broke, scattering some of itself into the clubhouse and bar and onto the rows of betting machines, leaving the rest in track-side seats to contemplate the next race. After all, there were only 26 minutes to the next post.