Harness racing at Fraser Downs is a 40-year industry in Cloverdale. (Darren Lupul photo)

Fraser Downs harness racing industry back on track

October race dates added for Cloverdale track, maintenance issues being addressed

The horsemen at Fraser Downs have made great strides since several standardbred owners and trainers came forward earlier this year to express concerns that the 40-year Cloverdale industry was in trouble.

The severe winter weather cancelled several race dates, cutting into a live racing schedule that has been getting shorter every year. In 2010, Fraser Downs had 87 live racing days a year. In 2015, there were 62.

This year, winter storms – and the havoc they played on the condition of the track – led to the cancellation of nine race days in total.

For more: Fraser Downs horsemen predict end is near

Letter: Casino couldn’t care less if Horsemen survive

The rough weather and the resulting issues opened a dialogue between Harness Racing BC (HRBC) and Great Canadian Gaming Corporation (GCGC) concerning maintenance and the race calendar.

Last week, it was announced that the horsemen would get four race dates added to October, to help make up for the cancellation, and that the track maintenance issues – such as the fence surrounding the track, which is rotting through in some places – would be addressed before the start of the fall season.

Carla Robin, executive director of Harness Racing BC (HRBC) said that the horsemen were now negotiating for additional race days in September.

“GPEB (Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch) is behind us on that too because they know the standardbreds can race a longer season than the thoroughbreds,” said Robin. “We need a minimum of eight months (of racing) to have a really sustainable industry.”

“Take a look at what’s happening back east in Ontario,” she said.

Woodbine Entertainment Group, which operates Woodbine Race Track and Mohawk Raceway has recently decided to take standardbred racing out of Woodbine and run standardbred racing 12 months of the year at Mohawk.

“Now, why would you be [running] an industry at Mohawk for 12 months of the year if it isn’t good for the economy?” said Robin. “You’d just let them race six months. But Ontario says, ‘No. The standardbred industry is a great industry and it has a lot of economic generation into the community.’”

“People here would love to have the 10 months of racing, like we used to have,” she said. “But if we had a minimum of eight, then we’d have people who are really willing to invest in the industry in the longer term, breed more horses, etc.”

“At this point there is no discussion about adding more days,” said Darren MacDonald, director of Racing Operations BC, Great Canadian Gaming Corporation.

“The four race dates were added to give the horsemen a chance to make up the days that were missed last winter. HRBC created some incentive programs to try and attract more horses which gave us more confidence in running three days a week,” said MacDonald.

For more: Negotiations ongoing at Fraser Downs racetrack

HRBC’s additional incentives aim to bring more horsemen, and more horses, to Fraser Downs. A starting incentive is in place for the fall season to encourage racers to stay the full season and see what it’s like to race at Fraser Downs. There will be a 10 per cent purse increase as well.

“With our incentives, and increasing the purses, those are things to get people here, hang onto their horses and race them here until such time as we can get more racing,” said Robin.

Robin added that the shorter racing season has a negative impact on the local economy. “The farmers suffer, the hay suppliers, feed, grain, you name it,” she said. “The front side (of Elements Casino) will be closed for five months. There’s no jobs there for that time.”

MacDonald said that it wasn’t the shorter season that impacted the casino and business in the area, but rather the extreme winter weather that Cloverdale experienced this past year.

“The overwhelming factor impacting all of our business lines – including casino gaming – was the unusually bad weather we all experienced. Just getting to the site, for both our team members and guests, was a huge challenge, and thus, all of our business lines were negatively impacted,” he said.

The four added race dates to October will fall on Tuesday, which MacDonald said would gain the races at Fraser Downs the most attention from wagerers across North America.

“In today’s horse racing industry, the most critical factor for success of a product is large wagering pools, and that only happens if those races are simulcast across North America for wagering purposes,” said MacDonald.

“Our goal was to find a day where there was very little other racing product available in North America, to try and maximize the size of those wagering pools. Tuesday was the day where we thought our racing would get the most exposure,” said MacDonald.

Getting back on track

Track maintenance issues, which The Reporter first reported in “Horsemen predict end is near” on Feb. 22, are also being addressed.

“Great Canadian is going to replace the fence and they’ve said they’ll have it done by the end of July,” said Robin.

Serious track training for young horses is done during the summer months, so a construction schedule is being worked out, but Robin expects to see it finished before the fall season starts.

The track will be resurfaced in certain areas, and Robin said that GCGC has bought a new tractor and new equipment for spreading the stone.

Robin also said that a worker has also been hired to fix the stalls in the barns.

“As we came out of the poor weather the track was much improved and very good at the end of the racing season,” said MacDonald. “Some new equipment has been purchased to assist with track maintenance going forward.”

“We are in the final stages of sourcing out a builder for the new fence, and will be planning on having it done in time for the start of the season,” said MacDonald.

 

In some places, the wood of the outside rail surrounding the track has rotted completely through, as seen here in this Feb. 22 photo. (Sam Anderson)