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Not only were there fast times, horse races saw record handle and huge crowds all four nights

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Favorite Bling, center, ridden by Jaime Lopez and Bigtime Carter, ridden by Raphael Romero, battle for the lead in the Jack Rhoden Memorial Stakes Saturday night. Bigtime Carter, second from right, crossed the finish line first, but was later disqualified for impeding Favorite Bling, who was declared the winner. The race had a purse of $13,500, the largest purse of the weekend. When the horses took to the track for the fifth race Saturday night at the Crooked River Roundup Race Meet, organizers were confident that they would see a fast time.

However, no one was prepared for just how fast the race would go. When the dust cleared, two horses had obliterated the previous track record over the 610-yard distance.

That record, set in 2004 was 32.00.

Saturday, He's a Bugin, ridden by Jaime Lopez, covered the distance in 31.942 and still finished a distant second to Cm Once Ina Bluemoon, ridden by Robert Burney, who raced to victory in a time of 31.878.

This despite the fact that race organizers went out of their way to make sure that the track was safe and had a nice cushion, something that often leads to slower times.

"We set out this week with our goal being that we were going to run a safe track," Race Director Doug Smith said following the meet. "In spite of the fact that we are keeping the cushion -- every two races I've got a tractor on the track -- and despite that we had a horse come in and set a track record and frankly, the horse that ran second in that race would have set the track record so we've got some exceptional equine athletes here and the riders are doing a good job and they are riding safe and taking care of each other."

Track safety has become a major issue this year after negative publicity surrounding 29 horse deaths at Santa Anita Race Track in California this year.

That number is actually the lowest number in the past 10 years, but has still sparked outrage and has led to a redoubled effort to ensure safe racing.

Although the Crooked River Roundup Race Meet works hard every year to ensure racing safety, this year they went even further to ensure that horses and riders alike would be safe.

"We are working in partnership with our state veterinarian to make sure that our horses are sound when they go out and then we are providing them a track that is safe," Smith said. "It goes back to the work that was done on rodeo week (when the Crooked River Roundup board of directors delayed the opening round of slack to replace a muddy arena with new, dry dirt). We make sure that the track is safe before we let people compete on it and I will be the first one, if the track is not safe, we will stop the thing and fix it. We are going to always have a safe track. This track, you can feel it spring under your feet."

With the emphasis on safety, there was only one incident during the entire race meet as two horses fell Wednesday night.

Neither horse was injured, but one jockey broke his wrist and missed the remainder of the race meet.

In addition to track safety, organizers also worked hard to improve the race experience for spectators with a giant screen providing both live video of races, and also replays.

Televisions behind the grand stands also made it possible for individuals to see the races even if they were not in the grandstands. That television coverage extended beyond Crook County as organizers worked to increase off track betting on the races.

The strategy worked, as the races set a record for their handle for the four-day race meet as well as setting a single-day record.

Friday night $125,953 went through the betting windows, while Saturday was nearly as good with $122,444 in bets placed on the races.

All told, the handle for the four days was $419,911, far more than at any previous race meet.

What makes that number even more impressive is that slightly more money was bet on races from race enthusiasts outside of the state than was placed at the track.

There was $209,393 going through the actual betting windows at the track and $210,517 in bets placed out of state.

"We worked very hard to increase our inter-state gambling," Smith said. We had a $50,000 increase just Friday night alone. We set a record for the biggest race ever with $20,212 wagered on one race on Friday night and of course, we don't know for sure yet on Saturday night. We could have just as big or bigger."

Not only was betting at this year's race meet huge, so were the crowds.

The race meet started with 3,215 people attending ladies night on Wednesday and the crowds continued to grow throughout the weekend with an official attendance of 14,327 for the race weekend.

"Our crowds have been huge," Smith said. "It's absolutely fun to come and play before full crowds, that's why people love Prineville. We were packed on Wednesday night, a little bit off on Thursday, but still a solid crowd and then Friday night, we just blew everything away. It was absolutely incredible. This is really fun."

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Horses round the final corner during Friday's five furlong second race. The two horse, far right, ridden by Taylor Smith, won the race, while Hot and Sassy, ridden by Jake Samuels, middle in yellow silks, finished second. The one negative over the four-day meet was that many of the races failed to have full fields.

Smith said that was expected as there has been uncertainty in Oregon horse racing for the past couple of years.

However, he believes that they have now turned the corner and future years will once again see an increase in the number of horses racing.

"Oregon has gone through some challenges," he said. "With the Stronach Group no longer going to operate in Portland (they ran Portland Meadows) there were a lot of horses that in that uncertainty left Oregon and went to find other places that were more certain to run."

There is a new commercial track being built in Grants Pass and Smith believes that has brought stability back to Oregon racing.

"The future is becoming solid, so I expect people to start working to gather up more horses," Smith said. "This will probably be the toughest year to find horses and we knew that going in."

Despite not always having full fields, racing was still competitive on all four nights, with several races just missing track records.

Friday night was Craig Woodward Appreciation night, with a new winners enclosure dedicated and all races run in honor of the former Prineville businessman, community supporter and racing enthusiast.

Saturday saw the best racing of the weekend, with most of the big races held Saturday evening.

The first big race on Saturday was the Prineville Quarter Horse Futurity, which saw Jaime Lopez ride One Flyin Foose to victory in a time of 13.357 over the 250-yard distance.

Two races later, Cm Once Ina Bluemoon set the track record over 610 yards.

Race six, the Art Smith Memorial, saw Jose Guerrero ride Nice Guys Finish to first in the seven furlong race with a time of 1:29.40.

Then came the featured race of the night, the Jack Rhoden Memorial, a 250-yard quarter horse race with a purse of $13,500.

With the big purse, racing was fierce. Bigtime Carter, ridden by Raphael Romero crossed the finish line first, edging Favorite Bling by a head. However, Bigtime Carter was subsequently disqualified for drifting out of its lane and impeding Favorite Bling, who was declared the winner after several tense minutes with both horses waiting near the winners enclosure.

When the winner was finally announced, Lopez pumped his fists high in the air. Favorite Bling's winning time was 13.215.

Race nine, the Woodward Memorial Stakes, was won by Mr. Takahashi, ridden by Robert Burney, with a time of 1:06.20 over five and one half furlongs.

The race meet closed out with the Prineville OHBPA Stakes, the longest race of the race meet.

Burney won again, this time riding Wings of Wisdom to victory over the one and one eighth-mile race with a time of 2:02.40.

Not only were races hotly contested, the race for jockey of the meet was also tight.

Burney, who won three races Saturday night, finished with five wins total. Lopez finished the race meet with six wins, while Eduardo Gutierez-Sosa and Jake Samuels each finished with eight wins.

Samuels was declared the jockey of the meet, despite the tie-in victories because he had four second-place finishes compared to three for Gutierez-Sosa.

The trainer of the meet was also hotly contested with Bill Hof coming out on top with six victories.

With 33 races over the course of the four days, 33 owners won at least one race.

As pleased as Smith was with the racing, he was even more pleased with the work done by volunteers during the four-day meet.

"You know, it's amazing," he said. "I figure to open the doors on this thing I need 110 volunteers for an off night. The people of Crook County and Central Oregon come together and just do everything they can to help us. We wouldn't be anywhere without volunteers. I'm a volunteer and from the board of directors, I just want to tell you that we love our volunteers.

They are the lifeblood that keeps this thing going. Without them, we would be nothing."

Smith was also pleased with the economic impact that the races have on Crook County.

"I think it's huge," he said.

"Every motel is full. Every restaurant that I go into seems full. Every stop light I stop at is backed up, so I'm pretty sure that we have having a huge effect on the local economy. That's really where it started out. Prineville needed a party and this is one heck of a party. It's very good for our economy and over the last three weeks, between the rodeo and the races, we have had businesses and people step in and help us. It's just the kind of deal that will bring tears to your eyes when it happens. The generosity of this community is just beyond belief."

Smith added that the entire race meet would not be possible without the commitment from the horsemen and women who come to town each year for the races.

"When you see a horseman, thank them," he said. "Because the horsemen come from everywhere and they aren't getting rich. They are coming here to put on a show. They are coming here because they love the crowds and they love the way they are treated nice in Prineville. I love that about Prineville people. They treat their horse people so well."


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