Get an insider’s view of standardbred horse racing this Saturday (Sept. 19), when the Backstretch at Fraser Downs Racetrack and Casino plays host to the annual kickoff to the fall racing season.
With an $11 million overhaul and rebranding of the former Cloverdale Raceway as ‘Elements Casino’ set to launch this winter, those on the racing side of the equation are eager to showcase their sport to fans and newcomers alike.
Visitors of all ages can watch horse-shoeing demonstrations, take guided barn tours, or ride alongside a professional driver in a jog cart pulled by one of this year’s equine stars.
Backstretch Day is a chance to learn more about an exciting sport – and a proud industry that supports hundreds of direct and spin-off jobs in Surrey and across B.C., says Carla Robin, a veteran horsewoman who took the reins as executive director of Harness Racing B.C., the association hosting the open house, in March.
“I think the horse racing in Cloverdale is the best kept secret in Surrey,” says Robin, adding, “More people need to come out to Fraser Downs at Elements Casino.”
The parking lot is full on race nights, but Robin is surprised by how many people don’t realize there is live horse racing or that horses live in the barns year-round.
“They say, oh my God, there’s horses in Cloverdale?” Or, they wonder, is that place still running?
“They know there’s a casino, but they don’t know there’s a racetrack within it,” adds Sandra Roberts, an owner and trainer who lives in Cloverdale, where she’s a tireless advocate for an industry that’s also a way of life for successive generations of local families.
Both women say there’s a lot riding on the new season, getting underway Oct. 1 after a five-month hiatus.
Horse racing in the province is subject to the B.C. Horse Racing Industry Management Committee, made up of stakeholders from each sector – the Public Gaming and Enforcement Branch and B.C. Lottery Corp., the horse racing associations and the operator, Great Canadian Gaming.
In February of 2014, a deal was inked guaranteeing live racing at Fraser Downs for the next five years, but the season will shrink to six months in 2016, something horsemen have been lobbying against, in part because their operating costs are year-round.
The deal also extends the funding arrangement; racing receives a proportional revenue from slot machines.
The agreement offers stability for the industry in the short term, but not necessarily long-term assurances.
“We need people to come out to support the racing,” says Robin. “Learn about it and get more involved, and have fun wagering.”
The horsemen want to reinstate a 10-month season.
“I believe we can make a comeback,” she says.
“We have to have the racetrack go back to full operations. We have the horses to do it. We have the passion to do it.”
The health of the racetrack has a direct impact on local small businesses – from tack and feed shops, and farriers and veterinarians, to horse breeders and even farmers – so a return to a longer season would benefit the community of Cloverdale, too.
Robin says the racetrack supports as many as 300 people, and their influence is felt when racing is in session.
“If there was more harness racing, you would have a much healthier small business community here,” she says.
“This summer, there were no horsemen and their families picking up food in downtown Cloverdale. But when the racing is on, those people have more income.”
She believes a shorter season hurts the industry’s ability to attract new blood – young people and women.
She and Roberts point out more than a handful of current drivers got their start as teens, working their way up from mucking out stables.
“A lot of the guys start at 15 working in the barns,” she says.
[Carla Robin, left, ‘De Deuce’, and trainer/driver Gord Abbott – Jennifer Lang photo]
Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary alumni include Jim Marino (making a comeback from an injury earlier this year), Jimmy Burke, Rene Goulet, and Rod Therres. Other locals include Dave Hudon, the Abbots – George, John, and Mark, and Billy Davis Jr., one of Canada’s top drivers.
“Look at all the jobs and careers people have found here. With racing being stifled, how do we provide opportunities?” asks Robin.
Backstretch Day runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 19.
Get to know a horse, have your picture taken, and see what it takes to look after the four-legged athletes, she says.
To find the barns, turn at the log archway at 176 Street and 62 Avenue (Bill Reid Way). The backstretch is located across from the Agriplex building on the Cloverdale Fairgrounds.
– For more information, visit harnessracingbc.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.