“You think they’ll run here next year?”
From the time I started working at Portland Meadows in 2006, every Summer that familiar question came up hundreds of times. “You think they’ll run here next year?” My answer was usually the same to everyone. “I think so. I hope so.”
Dr. Jack Root who has been a long time owner/breeder/trainer/veterinarian in Oregon told me once “Jason, I’ve been coming here for thirty years, and every year I hear from countless people that Portland Meadows is closing. It’s been closing for thirty years!” But then Dr. Root followed that statement up with another. “What will happen is some day, I think several years from now, we’ll show up one day, and there will be locks on the doors. That’s when we’ll know it’s finally closed.”
Well for me, this past Sunday, when I walked up to the front doors and saw the locks, Dr. Root’s prognostication finally hit home. I only stayed there for maybe thirty minutes or so on Sunday. Walked around and saw the grass growing over the main track. The inner rail torn down in places. The lights removed from the toteboard. The old golf course clubhouse empty.
I talked with one of the security guards who I’d known from my time at Portland Meadows. He said the day before was the last day of simulcasting. This coming Saturday would be the last day of poker. Then January 1, the new owners, a logistics company of some kind, would take over ownership. They’ll turn the property into some kind of trucking/shipping facility, the grandstand will go down, and life in North Portland will go on. I’ve seen it in other places. Where my beloved Longacres once stood there is now a Boeing building and a bunch of walking trails. Where Playfair in Spokane once ran races there is now a business park. Yakima Meadows is still standing but it looks condemned and I believe is only used to house motorcycle races.
Portland Meadows opened on September 14, 1946 and was the first North American Thoroughbred track to offer night racing according to the track about page on the website. The track survived a flood in 1948, a fire in 1970, and several different ownership groups. Gary Stevens career took off there and in 1982-83 he won 126 races before heading down to Southern California and creating a Hall of Fame career. Bill Shoemaker won the Portland Mile in 1989. There were other great things that happened on the track, but those things are all just PM’s biography.
To me it will always be about the people. I used to love to walk the backstretch and talk with wonderful trainers like my friend Ben Root. Folks like Dr. Ryland Harwood who was a career dentist and became a trainer, owner, and breeder in his retirement. Small barns like Bubba Bullene, and GD Khalsa, who despite never having a huge stables, are fabulous horsemen. Jockeys like Joe Crispin, and Mark Anderson, Javier Matias and Juan Gutierrez. Portland always had many female riders as part of the colony. Kathy Mayo won several titles there. Shawna Barber, Becky Abernathy, April Boag, Connie Doll, Debbie Hoonan, Marijo Terleski, Shawna Whiteside, Darlene Braden, Anne Sanguinetti, and in recent years Kassie Guglielmino and Eliska Kubinova.
Whatever track I go to I always make sure to make friends with the jockey agents. They always have the best stories and usually have some useful information. Steve Peery was an agent there for years and became one of my best friends. Keith Drebin was always fun to talk with. I remember at the first Portland Meadows Golf Tournament I played in, Mike Delnick was the leading agent and was in our group. I muttered at the first hole “Well I hope we can win today guys.” Delnick looked at me and said “Don’t worry, I’m keeping score. We’re gonna win.” I laughed and then he said “Jason, the most dangerous wood in my bag isn’t my driver. It’s my pencil.” We won the tournament by a stroke.
I also used to love to hang out with the tote room guys. Brothers Lucas and Ben. One racing night they were having a contest who could fit the most grapes in their mouth. So I participated and stuffed like 10 of those buggers in my yapper before eating them. After I finished them I ran upstairs to call the next race. As the horses reached the gate I could feel the acid from the grapes bubbling up in my stomach. I reached down and hit the mute button and let out a big burp. Then I heard my burp echo over the loud speakers. I looked down to my mic pack and saw the light was still green. The TV department even made a video of it which you can see HERE. It’s pretty gross, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I know the racing wasn’t world class or much class at all. But it was our track. I called those races like they were the most important races in the country because I knew to the owners, trainers, jockeys, and gamblers, they were important. I always felt a sense of pride that when an owner would watch the DVD of their horse winning a race, even years from now, that it was going to be me who got to describe the victory and call their horse. What a privilege.
When I left Portland Meadows in late 2014 to pursue another announcing opportunity, I remember being very sad about it. Even though I was taking the next step in my career (which I would of course completely blow), I didn’t like leaving. I remember tearing up saying goodbye to Jerry and Vestal in the main office. Shaking hands with Will who was my boss and is now my friend. I get emotional thinking about Will because he always supported me even though my professional time at Portland Meadows was the height of my personal life mental health struggles. One year my panic and agoraphobia got so bad that I would get crippling anxiety if I had to be far away from my car or medical help. So Will set up a huge TV and a microphone in the downstairs office so I could call off the TV and be close to the parking lot and the nurses station. I eventually made it back upstairs, but I told him countless times if he needed to fire me I would understand. I look back at those times and feel bad that it was such a struggle. But I also now have such an incredible appreciation for a boss who didn’t give up on me and ALWAYS had my back.
That’s why seeing Portland Meadows close up hurts so bad. I haven’t gotten a paycheck from there in 5 years. But I still am friends with many people from there. I still have memories of that tiny booth. The view of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens from that booth. The good times and the horrible times. So many of both were had on that plot of land at 1001 Schmeer Road.
The two tracks most dear to my heart have shuttered. I love horse racing and hope to be involved with it in some way until my final furlong. Just gotta keep working to make sure it can keep going, and god forbid, maybe thrive again. I urge everyone who loves the game and might particularly love a certain track. Treasure the times there. Take photos. Take videos. Make memories. When and if the doors get locked at your track, the photos, videos, and memories will be what you have to take with you.
A tour I did of Portland Meadows in 2011 can be seen HERE . My youtube page there has several videos from PM as well.