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The Crooked River Roundup Race Meet draws a huge crowd during the four days of horse racing action.

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - Race 1 Saturday night 5.5 furlong won by Bryson Butterfly on 4 horse at the 2021 CRR Race MeetThe annual Crooked River Roundup Race Meet kicks off Wednesday, July 13, at the Crook County Fairgrounds.

The four-day event is the largest spectator event in Crook County each year. Last year's race meet saw record crowds, with more than 20,000 people attending the four days of racing. With the Crooked River Roundup having record attendance this year, organizers are gearing up for what could be even larger crowds for this year's horse races.

"What we believe is: we've got to be prepared for extremely large crowds," race meet director Doug Smith said. "We are already working on ways to make it more efficient for 2023 than for 2022, because there are some things I can do in a year that I can't do now."

That doesn't mean that race organizers aren't taking steps to handle big crowds in 2022, though.

"We've got the big screen out in front, and we will be adding a seven-by-nine-foot television back in the whiskey garden, back in the beer garden, back in behind the grandstands, and that will play all of the video that is played on the main screen out in front. So, you will see the races live," Smith said. "We've enhanced the sound in the back. We are going to be able to turn that sound up, and they are going to be able to hear the race run live. Then, we will turn the sound back down to where it is normally, so they still will have the ability to have conversations back there and enjoy their friends."

In addition, organizers have removed the back wall from the whiskey garden to add additional space.

There will also be 19 different vendors at the race meet ensuring that there is plenty of food and drink available, as well as some vendors who will be selling other merchandise. With so many vendors on hand, the vendor space has also been expanded.

One other change that spectators should immediately notice is new LED lights on top of the grandstands. Eight portable light stands are also being added to make sure that there is additional lighting on the corners and backstretch.

Not only should that make viewing better, Smith noted that in the unlikely event that the fairgrounds main lighting were to fail, the portable lighting would allow racing to continue.

Safety is always a concern with horse racing, and race organizers work hard to keep both jockeys and horses safe. The tragic death of jockey Eduardo Gutierrez-Sosa on opening night a year ago has once again brought safety to the forefront.

"As far as safety goes, we've done some work on some equipment for horse safety," Smith said, who noted that renowned consultant Steve Wood was going to be helping with the racing surface. "The racing commission is sending him in to consult with us on track conditions. He's not coming in because we have problems; it's because we are trying to be proactive. We always work on trying to make sure that not only do our human athletes get through this safely, but so do our equine athletes."

Smith added that after three days of rodeo, the arena got a little slick. As a result, the roundup directors are trying to find the best ways possible to make sure that both the arena and the track have good footing.

Calcium in the water used to wet down the surfaces is bonding to small soil particulates, changing the chemical makeup of the dirt. For several years, the roundup directors have been adding sulfur to the racetrack and the arena, thanks to a grant funded by the Oregon Horse Breeders Association, to try to improve the quality of performances. However, the sulfur has not had as big an impact as hoped for, so now the event organizers are looking at possibly adding sand or organic material to the soil to make the surface better.

"We're trying to figure out what can we do long term to the soils and in the preparation of this ground to make it better for both rodeo and racing, because everything that we do at the Crooked River Roundup starts on the dirt," Smith said.

Oregon horse racing was thrown into turmoil when Grants Pass shuttered the doors of their racing facility in 2021. As a result, many horse owners moved their horses out of the area in order to continue racing. Although the problems in Grants Pass seem to be resolved, there could still be a shortage of horses.

"That's hopefully behind us," Smith said. " There is a new commercial license that has been issued. The future is looking better, but because of how they did it, a lot of horses left the area. So, we are trying to hold our breath and hoping we have enough horses, but I think we are going to be fine. Normally, I would be hoping for six, seven and eight horses in a field; this year, if I can get five or six or seven, I'll be happy."

Although the number of horses could be a small issue, Smith is still optimistic that it is going to be a great race meet. There should be at least 12 jockeys available for the race meet, including last year's Rider of the Meet, Jose Guerrero. In addition, there is already a full slate of horses for the biggest race of the weekend, the Jack Rhoden Memorial Bonus Challenge Race, which will be held on Saturday night. One of just four quarter horse challenge races in the country, the race will have a purse of more than $20,000 for just over 12 seconds of racing. The Jack Rhoden race has always been one of the biggest races at the meet, but with the Horseman's Quarter Horse Association (HQHA) sponsoring $7,500 dollars of the purse — and with the race's newfound status — it makes the race even more significant.

Other major races at this year's race meet include the Art Smith Memorial and the Ben Woodward Memorial races.

Racing over the four days will include both quarter horses and thoroughbreds, so there should be races of interest to everyone.

The gates open nightly at 5:30 p.m., with racing set to begin at 7:15. Wednesday is women's night, with women admitted free of charge. Tickets for the races are available online at www.crookedriverroundup.com or at the gate, with general admission tickets available for $10. Children three years and under will be admitted free of charge.


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