Fraser Downs racetrack falls silent on April 15 – the last night of live harness racing until October.
But there’s a question those who make a living from Cloverdale’s historic raceway are asking: will B.C.’s harness racing industry survive until then?
The decision to implement a six month, split racing season this year has been devastating and unless a longer season is reinstated, thousands of jobs will be lost, says former Surrey mayor Doug McCallum.
Last fall, McCallum took the helm of B.C.’s harness racing association, hoping he could use his political and business clout to help the industry – operating under a cloud of uncertainty – get back on its feet.
Six months later, he’s feeling disillusioned and the membership is reeling, desperate to see the return of a longer season that will bring the stability needed to keep local jobs and livelihoods across the province secure.
Harness Racing B.C., an association that represents breeders, owners, trainers and drivers, is seeking a 10-month, twice-a-week racing schedule in 2012, with the same number of total race days as allocated for this year, 82.
“If we continue with a shortened racing season next year, our breeding industry will be wiped out along with thousands of jobs,” McCallum said.
The issue has united everyone with a stake in the industry – from breeders in rural B.C. and veterinarians and farriers, to long-time trainers and promising young drivers.
They agree six months is too short for a viable season and it’s too long for a break.
“Most summers we survive because we break babies,” trainer Tom Bourdeau said Tuesday. After 44 years in the business, he’s about to look for his first part-time job to help pay for the horses he’ll train over the summer.
Meanwhile, Bourdeau said breeders have stopped producing stock and owners are reluctant to invest thousands without a promise of a return for months.
“If there’s no money coming in, there’s some nice horses here that are going to lose their lives,” he said.
Many of his colleagues are considering pulling up stakes and moving to Edmonton, Ontario, or California, even though there are no guarantees they’d be able to hold onto their livelihoods.
“Nobody wants to leave,” he said.
In addition to approximately 3,500 direct and indirect jobs on the line in the Fraser Valley, the future of Fraser Downs also impacts standardbred breeders and owners across B.C.
“They come from the biggest standardbred owners in the country to the people right at the bottom who can hardly write – it just literally makes me sick, when you listen to these people say how the industry is getting destroyed,” McCallum said.
The letters will be sent to Great Canadian Gaming Corp., the company that owns Fraser Downs Racetrack and Casino, the B.C. Gaming Policy Enforcement Branch, and the provincial management committee that’s looking at long-term solutions for the horse racing industry.
“The thing that’s made most of the members really upset is the fact that they’re not even asking for any more money from the government and they’re not even asking for any more race dates,” McCallum said. “They’re just asking them for 10 months over the year.”
Breeders are beginning to permanently shut down their B.C. operations.
Some, like Brett Currie, a long-time breeder with deep roots here packed his bags and a bunch of horses two weeks ago for Ontario.
“He doesn’t know if he’ll be back,” McCallum said. “He’s just about the founder, a rock-solid person whose given his whole life and family to this industry.”
Meanwhile, McCallum says he’s battling complete indifference, claiming the management committee chair told him, “’Yeah, there’s passion but we’ve already decided this.’ It’s unbelievable. For them to basically ignore these people, it’s astonishing.”
He also says Great Canadian Gaming is breaking the terms of its lease with the City of Surrey.
Twelve years ago, when McCallum signed the lease for Fraser Downs on behalf of city council, “the principle was to be sure that racing ran throughout the year,” he said.
“We were concerned, as a council, that Great Canadian was only concerned about their casino license,” he said. “They’re doing exactly what we were worried about. I don’t know how else to put it other than it’s just literally destroying the industry.”