Fall races cut back; protest Friday

Horsemen and their supporters are planning a protest and rally outside Fraser Downs Racetrack and Casino Friday.

Sandra Roberts and standardbred horse Daves Showboat took part in a protest Fraser Downs April 16.

Cloverdale’s horsemen and their supporters are renewing calls for a longer racing season at Fraser Downs, even as they absorb the disappointing news they’re losing 12 fall race dates.

For weeks, horsemen have been warning that the six-month season is a disaster that threatens to wipe out jobs here and across the Fraser Valley if it remains in place.

Friday night, they’re hoping to drum up more public support by holding a protest and rally in front of the casino.

“We’re hoping to ruffle some feathers,” standardbred owner and trainer Sandra Roberts said.

The protest is planned from 6 to 7 p.m. along the north side of the 60 Avenue sidewalk.

Roberts helped organize a small protest outside the casino on April 16 that coincided with the end of the winter/spring race season at Fraser Downs and the start of the 2011 thoroughbred season at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver.

Both racetracks and casinos are owned by Great Canadian Gaming Corp., which has rejected calls to restore a 10-month season at Fraser Downs.

The company doesn’t want the harness racing and thoroughbred seasons to overlap – a move Great Canadian vice president Howard Blank said is the best bet for ensuring the viability of both racetracks.

Blank has said Great Canadian, the provincial gaming and enforcement branch and the committee studying ways to keep B.C.’s horse racing sectors viable agree the two racetracks must avoid competing for customers.

Great Canadian is hoping to finalize the 2012 racing season by the end of May.

Friday’s protest against Great Canadian is being organized by Harness Racing B.C., the association that represents standardbred breeders, owners, trainers and drivers.

The association is continuing to press for a 10-month, 80-day season for 2012, with fewer days a week in return for a longer season members say is needed to protect their livelihoods.

On Tuesday, the horsemen suffered another blow – 12 conditional dates from the fall racing calendar have not been approved, bringing the total number of race days in 2011 to just 68. In 2009/2010, there were 107.

Former Surrey mayor Doug McCallum, Harness Racing B.C. CEO, says the fall dates that have been cut were conditional on several performance indicators.

Those included maintaining an average of 8.5 horses per race, a two per cent increase in the racing handle, and the number of B.C.-bred horses in each race.

“Those conditions they put on it were ridiculous,” McCallum said.

Other Surrey businesses will be showing their support for the horsemen at the May 6 rally.

“Businesses are all coming over,” he said.  “The main focus on this is that we want our 10-month, two times a week racing schedule for 2012, then we can get our breeders breeding again, and we’ll roll up the sleeves and we’ll do the work.”

Meanwhile, the two sides continue to disagree over Fraser Downs’ decision to close four of six barns this summer. The barns were closed and locked last week and won’t reopen until mid-July.

Harness Racing B.C.’s board says it opposed closing down any of the barns, but Blank said Great Canadian and Fraser Downs did consult with them first, setting the number of stables remaining open for horses at 200 after being told 163 stables would be needed.

“If they had needed more, we’d have been happy to talk to the horsemen.”

The closure will allow Fraser Downs to perform maintenance work and repairs, as well as save money on electricity, water, day-to-day maintenance and janitorial costs.

Blank said allegations that Fraser Downs has evicted horses from barns simply isn’t true.

“There’s a lot of misinformation. A lot of people think we’re sending horses off to die,” Blank said. “The biggest thing I’m concerned about is the little old ladies concerned we’re killing horses.”

He said the company has been “more than fair” in dealing with the people who work along the backstretch.

Blank said most racetracks close barns after racing is over, and many don’t have barns at all.

“They ship the horses in to race,” he said.

Other racecourses also charge track fees – something Fraser Downs hasn’t done.

“We’re providing the horse owners with free stalls and the opportunity to use the track for free.”

He said Great Canadian has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its B.C. racetracks. “We’re committed to this being a viable entertainment facility,” he said. “We want to be able to make [racing] a viable and growing industry.”