Horsemen step up pressure to extend racing season at Fraser Downs

A petition is being circulated in Cloverdale to show local support for standardbred racing, just as the winter/spring season draws to a close and thoroughbred racing starts up in Vancouver.

Horse owner/trainer-turned activist Sandra Roberts with a petition in support of the standardbred racing community and efforts to sustain a viable future for Standardbred horse racing in the Cloverdale community.

Local horsemen – and women – are stepping up pressure to extend the harness racing season at Fraser Downs.

Last Friday, Sandra Roberts, a standardbred horse owner and trainer at Cloverdale’s landmark racetrack began collecting signatures on a petition showing community support for B.C.’s harness racing industry.

Insiders say a split, six-month racing season – winding down Friday at Fraser Downs for summer break just as thoroughbred racing begins at Vancouver’s Hastings Park – has been a disaster, and threatens to wipe out thousands of local jobs here and across the Fraser Valley if it continues next year.

She hopes to collect at least 1,000 signatures by the time she’s done. By Monday morning, she was well on her way, taking the petition door-to-door to local businesses in Cloverdale’s historic downtown.

“The majority of the people are in support,” she said. “They can see the effect on the entire community if we lose the racing.”

Harness Racing B.C., the association that represents owners, trainers, drivers and others, says six months is too long for a break, but too short for a viable winter/spring season.

In a rare show of unity, the membership is asking for a 10-month racing season, a request that’s been rejected by the company that operates Fraser Downs Racetrack and Casino, the provincial gaming policy and enforcement branch, and the B.C. Horse Racing Industry Management Committee.

“We want to show that this is not just a bunch of horsemen,” Roberts said. “It’s the whole community supporting us in this.”

Those who make a living at the colourful red barns at Fraser Downs are worried about their livelihoods, she said, adding circulating a petition is one way for her to try to save jobs and a way of life.

Not all of the owners and drivers live in Cloverdale, Roberts said. Some live in Washington state, or other parts of British Columbia and even Alberta. They help contribute to the local economy because they stay in local hotels and eat at local restaurants when they’re in town.

In addition to providing jobs at the racetrack, she said the barns contribute to the local economy because goods and services are purchased locally, including animal feed, veterinarian care and farrier services.

Adding to the pressure of the shorter season implemented for 2011 is the fact that at the end of April – two weeks after the final race day – Great Canadian Gaming is closing four of the six barns at Fraser Downs over the summer as a cost-cutting measure.

Roberts said the move will force hundreds of horses out by month’s end – and pits owners and trainers against one another because the remaining stalls are offered at a first-come, first-serve basis.

The horses drawn for the closing night race card April 15 are at a particular disadvantage, she said.

She estimates the barns are home to approximately 450 horses as the season draws to a close, but there’s perhaps room for 180 horses to stable over the long summer break until racing resumes in October.

Copies of the petition are at the following locations for those wanting to sign: Newmac Animal Feeds at 17967 56 Ave., Dee’s Brazilian Shoes at 5757 176 Street, Tricia’s Gems at 5679 176 Street, and at Destination Cloverdale – home to both the Cloverdale District Chamber of Commerce and the Cloverdale Business Improvement Association – at 5748 176 Street. (You must be of voting age to sign.)