Live racing resumes Friday night at Fraser Downs, where the fall season is being hailed as a new beginning for the Cloverdale track.
What a difference a year makes. Last year the fall harness racing season at Fraser Downs Racetrack and Casino opened under a cloud of uncertainty.
Race dates had been cut by 30 per cent, the 2011 season was up in the air, and there were dire warnings from the province that big changes were necessary.
Spring ushered in rallies and protests aimed at gathering public support for reinstating a 10-month harness racing.
A shorter season combined with a long summer break appeared to threaten thousands of jobs across the Fraser Valley and beyond; affecting everyone from breeders in rural B.C. to longtime local racing families.
Fraser Downs’ owner Great Canadian Gaming Corp. was just as adamant that the two racing seasons – harness and thoroughbred racing – couldn’t overlap for fear of competing for betting customers at its two B.C. tracks.
Lobbying efforts paid off in May, when meetings between Harness Racing B.C. CEO Doug McCallum, cabinet minister Shirley Bond and other government officials resulted in a promise of a 10-month racing season for 2012.
While next year’s dates are still to be confirmed, there’s a renewed sense of hope for the industry’s future.
Veikko Pajunen is relatively new to the world of of Standardbred horse ownership.
“We got introduced to it a few years ago, and absolutely love it,” he said, showing off his latest purchase – Red Star Sailor, a massive standardbred who took part in qualifying races Sept. 23, the night before the annual backstretch open house.
“My wife and I like to come down, enjoy a nice meal at the race track, and watch our horses. We invite anybody to come out. It’s a lot of fun.”
Stop Calling, another of Pajunen’s race horses, stood just a few metres away in a stall, shaking its head and appearing to take great interest in the conversation.
“He’s kind of peeved off that we’re not paying attention,” Pajunen explained.
As many as 600 people turned out for this year’s open house, making it the perfect launch for the return of harness racing Oct. 7, director of racing Jackson Wittup said, adding staff and volunteers made it a huge success and “they deserve all the credit.”
Opening night festivities include the Cloverdale Chamber Night at the Races, where fans can experience the thrill of ‘owning’ a racehorse for a night, including the perk of being escorted to the winner’s circle for a souvenir photo with their winning horse.
“We’re excited about what we refer to as our ‘new beginning’,” Fraser Downs general manger Ken Stratton said.
For the first six weeks, there will be live racing three times a week – Friday nights starting at 7 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 1:45 p.m.
That format is in effect until Sunday Nov. 13, when the schedule reverts to two races a week – Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, except for an afternoon of racing on Boxing Day, Dec. 26.
Take out rates at Fraser Downs have been reduced to 15 per cent for win, place and show bets and for win four wagering, Raj Mutti, Great Canadian Gaming Corp.’s regional general manger of B.C. racing announced.
That brings the 2011/2012 Standardbred season in line with the 15 per cent takeout at Hastings Racecourse.