GRANTS PASS — When the Southern Oregon Horse Racing Association took over management of Grants Pass Downs in 2013, the first call the organization president Rod Lowe made was to Tag Wotherspoon.
At the time, horse racing in Grants Pass was in peril — jeopardizing a tradition dating back to the 1930s. And Lowe recognized it was going to be a monumental task in re-establishing the sport in Southern Oregon.
“I called Tag because I knew we would need him to make this thing successful,” says Lowe. “Things have gotten better and better since we started five years ago, and a lot has to do with Tag. He does it out of the love of the sport.”
When GP Downs’ nine-day season opens Saturday at the Josephine County Fairgrounds, live horse racing in Southern Oregon looks to be on solid footing. Post time for an eight-race card is 1 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday through July 9 and on the Fourth of July.
The mission of SOHRA is to promote live horse racing in Southern Oregon, says Lowe, not to post profits.
“It’s not about making money,” says Lowe. “It’s about putting money back into the track and improving things.”
Last season, GP Downs had the highest total annual betting ($380,819) and best daily handle ($42,313) since SOHRA took control.
“Right now we’re making enough to keep the tractors running,” quips Lowe. “We’re at a turning point where we can grow this into a nice little track.”
And Wotherspoon has played an important role in the resurgence.
“The fact that horse racing is alive and well is our biggest accomplishment,” says Wotherspoon. “It’s been a real roller coaster.”
Wotherspoon is a picture of perpetual motion on race days underneath the main grandstand. If the 59-year-old, Fortuna, California, native isn’t being asked betting advice by friends or acquaintances, helping a novice fan at the pari-mutuel window or supervising the popular “Win, Place and Show Contest,” the GP Downs director of communications and marketing is somehow assisting with whatever needs to be done.
“He wears so many different hats,” says Lowe, “between selling ads for the program, getting sponsorships or working with the media. He’s worth his weight in gold.”
Wotherspoon became acquainted with horse racing as a child attending the small track at the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, California.
“That was always part of our summer activity as a family,” says Wotherspoon.
In 1982, he took a radio job in Klamath Falls and followed that with stints as sports information director at Oregon Tech and Southern Oregon University. During that time frame is when Wotherspoon became familiar with the state’s summer fair circuit. Then for a few years in the late 1980s, he was a jockey agent at the Ferndale track.
“That introduced me to a different side of the sport,” says Wotherspoon. “I was fascinated with the behind the scenes aspect.”
Former Josephine County Fair manager Jackie McBee reached out to Wotherspoon when she became director of racing in 2007. She hired him to handle communications after longtime advertising director Gary Davisson passed away.
“But he was much more than that,” McBee says of Wotherspoon. “It took a lot to get everything running smoothly. I couldn’t have done it without him. All of a sudden it was, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to do both jobs.’ I had no backup. Tag helped me out immensely.
“Tag is so good at the promotions and getting people and the community involved. He came up with great ideas and made them work.”
Wotherspoon is a freethinker in relation to promotions, but is very much a traditionalist when it comes to respecting the history of the sport in Grants Pass. And Wotherspoon especially respected Don Jackson, the godfather of racing in Southern Oregon.
“I didn’t think twice when asked to help out SORHA in 2013 because of my regard for Don Jackson,” says Wotherspoon. “He was my mentor.”
Prior to Jackson’s death in 2012, they had lunch together every Friday during the season for five years.
“(Wotherspoon) is very much a people person,” says McBee. “He took care of all the advertising for the program, got everything to the newspapers and TV and radio stations, organized betting seminars. He took a lot off my shoulders.”
Wotherspoon, who has an undergraduate degree in business from Menlo College and a masters in telecommunications from Syracuse, has tried to replicate the minor league baseball promotions model here.
“Back when we first started it was hit or miss regarding promotions,” says Wotherspoon. “We’ve improved by leaps and bounds. We basically have a promotion each and every day. We like doing new and different things.”
Wotherspoon looks at promotions as a means to an end.
“Our biggest challenge is to get people to come to the races,” says Wotherspoon. “If people come, they will have fun and we know they’ll come back.”
An example of his effectiveness is shown in advertising sales for the daily program. His first year in 2007, Wotherspoon sold $4,500 in advertising. This year, Wotherspoon has exceeded last year’s $12,000 in advertising. The program was 28 pages in 2012, the only year Wotherspoon wasn’t involved at GP Downs since 2007; last year it was 44 pages.
“I start getting calls in January and February from people about buying ads for the program,” says Wotherspoon. “Initially, I used to have to chase everybody down. We’re doing something right that people are reaching out to us.”
Grants Pass veteran horsewoman Nancy Klapatch recognizes Wotherspoon’s value to the local track.
“He’s been instrumental in keeping horse racing alive here,” says Klapatch, a retired school teacher. “He’s a salesman. He hustles in getting people interested in horse racing.”
Wotherspoon has applied his sports information and business and marketing skills to the job at GP Downs.
“I do what I can to be a positive ambassador for Grants Pass Downs and SOHRA,” he says. “Grants Pass Downs has become a big part of my life. I’m blessed to do something I’m passionate about.”
And it shows.
THE OPENING weekend will feature a pair of stakes races — the Daily Courier Inaugural and Rogue Dash — on Saturday and three quarter horse trials on Sunday for the estimated $28,500 Firecracker Futurity, which is held on the Fourth of July.
Racing secretary Shorty Martin has installed Xerxes and last year’s morning line favorite, It Doesn’t Add Up, as the horses to beat in the 5-furlong, $3,500 Inaugural.
Xerxes, breaking from the No. 1 post position, earned more than $34,000 last year and ran second in two outs at Sun Downs in Kennewick, Washington. It Doesn’t Add Up has approximately $17,000 in winnings in 2016, will break from the outside in the eight-horse field and won its last start at Sun Downs.
In the Firecracker trials, three-time winning Firecracker trainer Hector Magallanes has two of the top horses in the possible 20-horse field. Corona B Gone, brother to 2013 Firecracker winner Eagle B Gone, finished fifth in the Pot of Gold futurity this spring. And L Bar D Classic Trip was the Pot of Gold consolation winner.
FORMER LEADING jockeys Kassie Guglielmino and Jake Samuels, who got engaged during the 2015 meet, tied the knot over the Memorial Day weekend at Guglielmino’s family resort in Washington.
Guglielmino was the leading rider in 2015 and Samuels took home the title the year before.
Eduardo Gutierrez-Sosa, last year’s leader with 19 wins, returns to defend his crown.
Idaho jockey Robert Burney, the leading rider at last week’s summer fair meet at Union, plans to ride the entire GP Downs season. Last year, Burney posted five wins in a limited schedule here.
FREE ADMISSION on Father’s Day for all dads. For the past three years, Father’s Day has registered the highest handle and attendance. In 2016, $62,649 were wagered and a crowd of 4,030 was in the grandstand.
The Fourth of July was the second-best day with $56,908 bet and a crowd of 3,565.
OTHER PROMOTIONAL DAYS planned for the meet include First Responders Day, Ladies Hat Day, Dutch Bros. Day, Military Appreciation Day, Don Jackson Day and Fan Appreciation Day. Free admission is a component for some of them.
INTERNET will play a role at GP Downs. For the first time, this year’s races will be simulcast live on internet sites and people can bet through Advanced Deposit Wagering companies.
Also GP Downs has an informational website: www.southernoregonhorseracing.com.
THE ECONOMIC impact on the community from the meet is estimated to be in the $3 million range. Randy Evers, executive director of the Oregon HBPA, says an independent survey shows the horse racing industry generates $200 million annually in the state.
THE POPULAR “Win, Place and Show Contest” gives fans a chance to win $200 each race day. A drawing for $100, $60 and $40 will be held at the east end of the grandstand after the seventh race. Instructions are posted at the track.
— Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480 or email@example.com