Oregon Gov. Pressured Regulator to Nix Grants Pass HHR Machines

Posted on: February 21, 2022, 10:21h. 

Last updated on: February 21, 2022, 10:31h.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) has torpedoed an application for 225 historical horse racing machines (HHRs) for Oregon’s last surviving thoroughbred racetrack, Grants Pass Downs.

Kate Brown
Gov. Kate Brown warned racing commission members they could lose their jobs if they voted against the DOJ opinion. (Image: USA Today)

The track’s owner, Dutch Bros. Coffee magnate Travis Boersma, wanted the machines for a new entertainment center, The Flying Lark. He hoped the Lark would help reinvigorate racing in the state.

But in a letter last week to the Oregon Racing Commission (ORC), Brown emphasized it would be more than its members’ jobs were worth to approve the application.

“If members of the Commission vote to take any action inconsistent with the law, as interpreted by the Oregon Department of Justice [DOJ], I would regard such conduct as contrary to my expectations for your appointment. This could provide grounds to initiate removal from the appointment,” wrote Brown in a letter seen by local NBC affiliate KOBI.

ORC Reluctant

Brown reiterated that the state DOJ had one week earlier issued an opinion that HHR machines were more akin to slots and lottery games than the pari-mutuel horse race betting permitted at racetracks.

In a nine-page opinion, the DOJ said than no more 75 HHRs should be permitted at any one venue because it would violate the ban on casinos in the state.

Only federally recognized tribes are allowed to operate casinos in Oregon, and Boersma’s plans have faced a backlash from a collation of tribal operators.

On Friday, the ORC turned down the application, but begrudgingly so.

ORC executive director Jack McGrail made it clear that he disagreed with the DOJ opinion. He pointed to a bill passed by the legislature in 2012 that authorized “mutuel wagering on a horse race displayed as a video or audio recording.”

While I have great respect for the DOJ, their opinion is clearly at odds with the opinion of legislative counsel when the enabling statute was enacted,” he said, as reported by CBS affiliate KTVL.

“I don’t think that there is any mistaking that the legislature knowingly and intentionally tossed a life preserver to our industry (horse racing) when they passed HHR legislation, and this opinion will clearly thwart that intention and deliver a serious blow,” he added.

‘Casinos Have Roulette

Commissioner Charles said the Flying Lark was definitely “not a casino.”

“Casinos have roulette wheels, they have craps tables, they have Blackjack, they have lottery drawings, and Flying Lark has none of these,” he said. “All it is is a couple of hundred historical racing machines,” said commissioner, Charles Williamson.

The commission acknowledged that its hands were tied by the governor, but hoped the issue might one day be resolved in court.

Boersma said the decision meant that 200 people would lose their jobs at the end of the month. But he added that he would fight the DOJ’s opinion, which he described as “wrong and deeply flawed.”

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