Standardbred racing at Fraser Downs Racetrack and Casino in Cloverdale.

Hastings deal shelves horse track merger idea

Separate paths seen for harness, thoroughbred racing

The City of Vancouver has agreed to a two-year extension of Great Canadian Gaming’s Hastings Racecourse, putting to rest for now talk that the Lower Mainland’s two horse racing tracks might merge at a single site.

Vancouver council’s delay in signing a deal to keep racing at Hastings Park and its goal of tripling green space in the park had fueled speculation thoroughbred horse racing there might soon be relocated to Cloverdale’s Fraser Downs, which hosts standardbred harness racing.

“This extension allows our company to work closely with the City of Vancouver regarding long-term operations at Hastings Racecourse without being concerned with a lease deadline looming,” Great Canadian spokesman Howard Blank said.

Hastings lease was to expire in November and the deal now provides certainty until November 2014.

Rich Coleman, the provincial minister responsible for gaming, said in an earlier interview he expects both tracks will continue separate operations.

And he said a new five-year strategic plan for the horse racing industry set for release soon will likely call for significant changes but continued operation of both tracks.

“I think the recommendation at the end of the day may be to see if they can sustain themselves at their individual tracks,” Coleman said.

Running both racing styles at one dual-circuit track isn’t impossible, but Coleman said it will be off the table as long as separate tracks have secure homes and are viable.

Consolidating tracks in Surrey at Cloverdale would require moving barns to make room for an expanded racing footprint.

“It’s not cheap – it’s probably in the $10-million range,” Coleman said. “But if you’re going to sustain an industry and the 7,000 overall jobs it supports, you’d probably make that investment – if you had a good business plan to back it up.”

He expects one recommendation in the pending report will be to split the current horse racing management body that runs both styles of racing.

“The two industries probably need to be decoupled to pursue separate and unique business strategies,” Coleman said, adding he believes that may be the formula for long-term sustainability.

That would see thoroughbred and standardbred racing allocated separate funding sources to run their individual breeding and other operations, according to business models that fit their needs.

“They have a different betting group and different clienteles,” he added.

Hastings Park has done well attracting upscale gamblers and urbanites to the races, in part with concerts and other attractions, he said.

In contrast, he said attendance for harness racing at Cloverdale’s Fraser Downs is flat and needs to focus on offering a more family-oriented experience.

Coleman suggested another change could allow Great Canadian to sell off one or both of the horse racing operations.

“It comes down to the track operator – whether they want to be in the business,” he said. “They may want to have the horse racing side separate from them because it’s not their core business.”

Harness Racing BC CEO Doug McCallum is upbeat about the future of the standardbred racing, adding more horses are being bred and wagering is up this year – particularly online.

“We’re in pretty good shape this year and going into next year,” he said, adding a return to a longer racing season has helped.