For 40 years, the Fraser Downs racetrack has been a home, a family and a way of life for the people working the backstretch.
But, according to Sandra Roberts, Standardbred owner and trainer, Cloverdale’s Fraser Downs is at a crossroads.
Roberts has been in the horse racing business for 17 years, but she said it’s this season that might break her.
Over the past five years, the amount of live racing days have been getting fewer.
In 2014, stakeholders, including Great Canadian Gaming Corporation (GCGC) and the BC Horse Racing Industry Management Committee, agreed to a multi-year funding deal, in which Fraser Downs received a scheduled 34 race days between January and April and another 37 days from September to December, for a total of 71 days.
In 2010, Fraser Downs had 87 live racing days a year. In 2015, there were 62.
This year, winter storms led to the cancellation of several race days, cutting into the horsemen’s income by as much as 13 per cent.
“The cancellations have a major effect,” said Roberts. “That’s your income.”
Roberts, along with other horsemen on the backstretch, said not all of the race days would have had to be cancelled due to weather if the track had been properly maintained by (GCGC), the track operator.
“The track is what they call ‘in good shape’ today, which it isn’t,” said Roberts. “That’s because of a lack of maintenance. The track should be all one level, with a slight taper on it so the water runs down.”
The ‘safety lane’ at Fraser Downs racetrack.
“(Great Canadian) aren’t good business partners,” she said. “They’re the track operators, and they’re required by law to supposedly maintain the track in a safe manner. As you know, we had a dump of snow, so yes Mother Nature had a slight effect on us. But they refused to put in the work to maintain it as a usable track.”
Darren MacDonald, Director of BC Racing Operations at Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, said it was unfortunate that some of the horsemen felt that they were poor partners. “It’s regrettable that some may feel this way, but we have a partnership governed by the current agreement amongst all managing stakeholders of the industry,” said MacDonald. “(The) sentiments simply do not reflect the facts or current reality.”
“Our track maintenance staff have put in countless hours of overtime to try and get the track into racing shape,” said MacDonald. “With the extreme winter that we have had and the numerous freeze and thaw cycles, we have been at the mercy of the weather.”
“Every effort has been made to keep the track in shape, but, as an outdoor-based activity, we are completely at the whim of the unusual weather we all experienced recently,” he said. “During this poor weather stretch we have had our track crew working—quite literally—on the track around the clock.”
Roberts doesn’t believe it’s enough. “We’re not pointing fingers at the (maintenance) staff,” said Roberts. “But they’re only given eight hours and they have to prioritize.”
Carla Robin, Executive Director of Harness Racing BC Society, the organization that represents BC’s Standardbred horse racing industry, including the breeders, owners, trainers, drivers, grooms and horses, also believes maintenance staff needs more funding in order to support a race season that goes through winter.
“The discussion this year is (GCGC) is having cost overruns. The overruns are because of the weather. Well when you budget, budget for winter racing,” said Robin.
In some places, the wood of the outside rail surrounding the track has rotted completely through.
“The horsemen are so devoted to the industry that they go out of their way to help get everything fixed here, but there’s only so much that you can do,” said Robin.
“Discussions (with GCGC) regarding the deterioration of the backstretch have been ongoing for years and very little maintenance is being done,” said Robin. “The membership has struggled with Great Canadian to actually maintain (the facilities) as per the lease agreement with the City of Surrey, which says it has to be maintained as a first class racetrack facility.”
There are long-existing problems at the racetrack outside of the grading and maintaining of the track itself, according to Robin and Roberts. The fence surrounding the track, for example. “There are sections where it’s held together with old, rotten wood,” said Robin. “It’s been like this for years.”
“We would love to see this maintained properly for our horses, and for our horsemen,” she said. “It’s a respectful request.”
Race season extension
The Harness Racing BC Society has requested to extend their season three weekends beyond their scheduled finish date.
“We’ve asked to have make up days to let people work for their money and to bring revenue into the province, which is what we do,” said Robin. “We would like our last week of April. We’ve asked for some days in May. And some days in September, too.”
GCGC’s counter offer was three-day race weeks in March—an option that many horsemen don’t believe is feasible.
“We don’t have the horse population to sustain a three-day race week,” said Dave Hudon, trainer and driver at Fraser Downs.
“You don’t want them to race every four days, that’s how you get injuries,” he said.
This season might be the last for some of the horsemen at Fraser Downs.
“There’s a lot of people that have been hanging in there, hoping Great Canadian would change,” said Robin.
But the horsemen haven’t given up—it might not be in their nature.
Before the 2014 agreement to go to a six-month season, the horsemen banded together to protest cutting back the amount of live racing days.
In 2011, Sandra Roberts campaigned against a six-month racing season, and after months of protests, and gathering signatures for a petition, she won her fight.
Roberts said she is prepared to fight again for Fraser Downs.
“When a community comes together and stands behind an industry, it’s hard for people to look the other way,” she said.
“They said one person couldn’t make a difference, I said ‘watch me.’”