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April 30, 2003

 It's a Lifeboat, but the ship is still sinking...
NOTE: Following is a guest column written by Gary Bannerman
for the Western Harness Racer newspaper

(16 June, 2003) It's a lifeboat, but the ship is still sinking. The advent of slot machines at racetracks - finally now imminent in Vancouver - has had the salubrious effect of pumping cash into both purses and operations, but there is little evidence to date that the new affluence is excising the malignancy killing the sport.

There are few kids. The demographics are more appalling than for any sporting activity on the continent except lawn bowling. When I grew up in the Maritimes, often sneaking into racetracks over or under the fence, there were hundreds of us young brats under foot; a nuisance difficult to control.

In his column last month in the Western Harness Racer, Fraser Downs General Manager Chuck Keeling emphasized that the real challenge in the face of this new income stream, will be to ensure that funds are used to build the sport and the fan base.

Our Ontario and Alberta friends could likely predict with perfect accuracy the self-serving shopping list each of B.C. horse racing's stakeholder groups will have as we go forward. After suffering for such a long time from unfair competition with nearby casinos and the slot-machine inflated purses in other Canadian racing jurisdictions, a consistency of good paydays is overdue.

If breeders' supplements and race conditions for the best purses are carefully crafted to minimize opportunities for imports - horse stock, owners, trainers and drivers - we will ensure monotony on the racetrack. Contrary to myth, there is no shortage of horses. There is an acute shortage of horse owners and investors, wherever they come from, and rivalries to excite fans.

Our industry will now be applying fresh paint to a rusty hull. Slot machines will draw thousands of new customers to the premises, but how many will evolve into fans and horse owning families?

What amazes me so far in B.C. is the benign attitude the government is taking along with the slot machine approval. During past eras of pari-mutuel affluence, governments treated race dates as a public trust, a privilege, not a right.

There can be no future for British Columbia horse racing without a world class thoroughbred facility, with a one-mile track and chutes for longer distances, and at least a 7/8ths mile turf course. In addition to that, desirable components also include stables, training facilities and support infrastructure - at least 200 acres - preferably more than 300.

Both Fraser Downs and Hastings Park have explored a dream of a future combined facility. However, the Cloverdale grounds upon which Fraser Downs sits could be redeveloped to produce an optimal standardbred complex.

This will never be possible at Hastings Park. We will rival very small town horse racing forever, and ultimately die as a live sport, if a new track is not one day built. Hastings Park, ironically, could become one of the most admired harness racing facilities in the world, but it is simply not large enough for big league thoroughbred racing.

Everyone in the North American horse racing industry - including Woodbine Entertainment - knows that.

But what if Fraser Downs and Hastings Park just smugly live off the slot machine profits and nonstop simulcasting, minimizing the live product forever, paying off noisy horsemen and breeders with whatever it takes to keep them quiet?

If those holding these permissions wish to ignore live racing, it would be very easy for them to evolve ever-increasing off-track racing revenues in modern lounges, along with prosperous casinos, and paying not much more than public relations lip service to the development of the British Columbia sport.

Will the "regulator" do anything? What incentive will there be to build the best? If a new group came in and offered to invest $200 million in modern facilities, would they be ignored? Are the slot machines connected to the race dates?

It is going to take a long time clear all of the regulatory hurdles at Fraser Downs and likely longer at Hastings Park (and maybe years at Sandown Park near Victoria, or on the Interior thoroughbred circuit), and then we'll await construction.

In the meantime, I would urge operators, horsemen and breeders to think of the young, new fan. And the best way to get them is to attract new families as horse owners, whatever it takes.

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