As Victorians are gutted for rows of skinny houses and gaudy apartment complexes rise from the ashes of vacant lots, we naturally wax nostalgic for the old days when Portland was a well-kept secret, a PDX scrawled with invisible ink on the bar-napkin treasure map of American cities. Our counterculture subsumed by counterculture, we pitter for hours in the rain for authentic, free-range tapas, yet we inadvertently neglect the endangered haunts we’re so keen to mourn. Portland Meadows is one of those places, and you don’t have be a decrepit gambler to explore it.
Our track, opened in 1946 to a crowd of 10,000 spectators, sits mostly forgotten on a slab of concrete between the Columbia Slough and Delta Park. Despite a massive re-branding and renovation in 2012, Meadows still exudes more charm than an organic quadruple-hopped IPA.
Peek inside at the mid-century paintings of thoroughbreds and jockeys that haunt the foyer, and you’ll start to feel the difference. Go further and circle the open-air paddock, the manure-laden carousel where horses parade before the races and admire the decades of dust in forgotten corners, the unforgiving concrete slabs that imply permanence though there’s no telling how long it will last. Take the back staircase to the grandstand and your time travel will be complete. Survey the full-timers, racing forms spread like a Sunday brunch before them, their personal 12-inch TVs that broadcast the races from bigger tracks on a swivel and within reach. Look out at the track itself and the geese colony on the infield or watch Mt. Hood seethe through a rippling, American flag. Track the sun beyond the starting gate as it tiptoes the tin roof of the dilapidated stables. All this before you even see the horses.
Portland Meadows doesn’t offer up its fiscal status for public consumption, yet any casual observer can guess this place isn’t thriving. Go on a Tuesday, and you and a dozen strangers will have the paddock to yourselves; that same motley crew will migrate to the wire just before post time, and your collective joy and misery won’t even resonate in the Lowe’s parking lot a mere 100 yards away. Just the same, you feel an odd camaraderie and not the clichéd one about beautiful losers, the destitute outcasts cobbled together and throwing away what little capital they’ve managed to keep.
Rather, you’ll feel the subtle joy of exclusive membership in a club that scoffs at exclusivity. You can be yourself here, whoever you are, gambler, dreamer, neither or both.
First time at the races? See our idiot’s guide to betting on the horses.
Portland Meadows opens its 2016/2017 meet on Sunday, September 25. First post (race) at 12 p.m. (Full racing schedule here.) Admission free.