Severe winter weather led to cancellation of several race days

Severe winter weather led to cancellation of several race days

Negotiations ongoing at Fraser Downs racetrack

Horsemen look for make up dates after severe winter weather cancels several races

Rod Therres is, in his own words, “a Fraser Downs lifer.” He’s a trainer, a driver and an owner of both standardbred and thoroughbred horses, and he’s been involved with the racetrack at Fraser Downs since it first started up 40 years ago.

His mother, brother and sister worked at the track and he worked at first on the frontside, selling programs and tip sheets, before beginning to race himself.

He has decades of experience both working at Fraser Downs and training horses.

On Friday, March 17, Therres had an accident on the track.

His young horse spooked at the tractor, which was performing maintenance on the limestone track.

“When he spooked he went over one of those high piles of limestone and knocked me out of the cart and then dragged me,” said Therres.

“I’m sore but I don’t know where yet,” he said. “We got lucky, I think.”

Therres acknowledged he could have waited for the tractor to leave the track and that this wasn’t the first time he’d had an accident while training a horse.

“It happens,” he said. “But it’s totally preventable, if the ridge wasn’t there.”

Therres said the employees at the track work hard and want to do a good job, but that a lack of communication and resources ties their hands.

“From what I’ve seen, they won’t hire enough people,” he said. “They don’t know how to take care of the track. Great Canadian [the track operator] puts so many jobs on each person.”

Therres said that since the worst of the winter weather has left Cloverdale, progress has been made in the track’s maintenence.

“They have been cleaning up the safety lane a bit,” he said. “There’s still a lot of limestone to be picked up, which they haven’t touched. They cleaned up in between the barns a little bit.”

On Feb. 22, The Reporter reported on the negotiations between Great Canadian Gaming Corporation (GCGC), the track operator, and Harness Racing BC, the organization that represents BC’s Standardbred horse racing industry, including the breeders, owners, trainers, drivers, grooms and horses.

Unusually severe winter weather led to cancellation of several race days, and the horsemen at Fraser Downs are requesting to make up those days outside of the racing season outlined in their contract.

“They say we have no shot at getting our days back,” said Therres. “Not after the newspaper article. The damage is done.”

“They’re having a temper tantrum, is what they’re doing, because of the story,” he said, in reference to The Reporter’s Feb. 22 article.

“It’s nothing new, the battles between management and horsemen,” he said. “But these ones [Great Canadian] really don’t care.”

Jerome Bouvier, who raced at Fraser Downs racetrack in the ‘70s and ‘80s, returned to race at the Cloverdale track four years ago.

“It’s in my blood,” said Bouvier. “My dad’s been in it since I was 15 years old. He’s 84 and still racing and training horses in Ontario.”

“He came out [to Fraser Downs] and he lasted two years before he left,” Bouvier added. “He said, ‘I can’t race here, it’s all gone to hell.’”

“We were here when it was in its prime,” he said. “I don’t remember a day back then that we were cancelled due to weather, unless it was foggy or the power was out.”

“[Fraser Downs] is a very particular track in Canada because of the weather and the dynamics that you have with limestone,” he said. “You need well trained individuals that have the flexibility to do what needs to be done, and the materials and equipment to help them do it.”

“Young horses training here, they break down, they get hurt,” said Bouvier. “Babies don’t make it to the races.”

Bouvier lost a horse to injury at Fraser Downs last year. Now he has made the difficult decision to leave the track.

“We couldn’t handle having another horse hurt and injured,” he said. “I would love to race here again, in a second. I would love to know that next winter, I could bring my horses back here and know that things will be different and that I can trust I’ll get a horse back after the race.”

“I know people that work for Great Canadian, and they’re well-intentioned people and they care,” said Bouvier.

But those people, he said, require more resources and support in order to be able to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

According to Darren MacDonald, Director of BC Racing Operations at GCGC, it wouldn’t have mattered what the size of the crew was this past winter. When faced with the extreme conditions, additional crew wouldn’t have been able to prevent racing disruptions.

If the track wasn’t safe to race on, the race was cancelled.

The season for live racing at Fraser Downs runs from October to April on an outdoor, limestone racetrack. This past winter, Surrey saw a 44-day cold snap from Dec. 4 to Jan. 16, the longest duration of freezing temperatures since 1984.

The winter weather led to the cancellation of several race days.

Horsemen have come forward to say they believe they could have raced on some of the race days that were cancelled, if GCGC had put more effort into maintaining the track.

According to MacDonald, that is not the case.

“Simply put, there is no defense or preparation that can be done if we experience a lot of freeze and thaw cycles, and that is no different than other Canadian jurisdictions where horse racing is conducted,” said MacDonald.

It’s not “an issue of not being prepared,” he said.

As for track conditions, work will be undertaken after the winter weather, as it does every year, he said.

“At the end of every race season we undertake work to enhance the racing surface to ensure it is in its best condition for the following race season,” said MacDonald.

“In the case of this past winter and the unusual amount of wear and tear we experienced due to the extreme weather conditions, the work we undertake will be more significant, particularly as it relates to the track fence,” he said.

“During the racing season it is not practical to do any significant work as the process is a lengthy one and would affect the running of race days or operating hours of the track for training purposes,” added MacDonald.

Negotiating a future

Coun. Bruce Hayne, chair of the Parks, Recreation and Sports Tourism for the City of Surrey, has lived in Cloverdale for 24 years, and he sometimes visits the racetrack with his family.

“I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “We don’t go regularly, but we try to go every year on Boxing Day.”

The Hayne family couldn’t go this year, as the Boxing Day race was cancelled due to the weather.

“This year has been an anomaly,” said Hayne. “It’s been a horrendous winter.”

“Maintaining the limestone track becomes very difficult,” he added.

Hayne said the city has been “involved” with the recent complaints concerning conditions at the racetrack but that the city has “an arms-length deal” with GCGC.

“How Great Canadian operates the facilities is up to them and their client,” said Hayne.

“(Great Canadian) has been a terrific corporate partner, a great tenant,” he added.

Hayne said Great Canadian has “responded with a plan”  to undertake other track repairs, such as fixing the perimeter fence, when better weather comes to Cloverdale.

Some horsemen, including Jerome Bouvier, have expressed the wish to see both the City of Surrey and the province step in to meet with the horsemen and GCGC about the current negotiations.

“You’re in a situation where an industry that is under agriculture and sport is about to lose jobs, not just in the horse industry but in the surrounding community,” said Bouvier. “You’re losing a whole culture, a whole livelihood.”

As for the City of Surrey, they are “simply not in a position to step and and support with subsidies,” according to Hayne.

“A business case cannot be made for that,” said Hayne.

“My job is to look longterm. What’s the best use for the [racetrack] facilities over the next 10 years? In the longterm, how does harness racing fit into our community? A lot of people put their heart and soul into it, their lives are invested in it. How do we balance that as a community?”

“Harness racing is struggling across the country and North America to be viable these days,” said Hayne. “There needs to be a conversation, maybe provincially, maybe nationally, on how we can best support the industry.”

That conversation will need to take place, in part, between members of the BC Horse Racing Industry Management Committee, which is made up of stakeholders which include GCGC, Harness Racing BC  and representatives from the BC Lottery Corporation.

The committee will meet later this week at a regular meeting, at which Rod Therres expects the make-up days will be discussed.

Negotiations on providing the horsemen with make-up race days are ongoing.

What the future will look like for the Fraser Downs racetrack is up to the agreement of the management committee, according to MacDonald.

“With the industry centrally managed through the BC Horse Racing Industry Management Committee, the upside is that the fate of the industry is in the hands of its stakeholders, which includes [Harness Racing BC],” said MacDonald.

MacDonald was positive when asked about the next few years at Fraser Downs.

“Funding for the industry, through wagering and slot machine revenue, grew in the past year, largely due to the increase in slot machine revenue generated by the rebrand to Elements Casino,” said MacDonald.  “The standardbred sector continues to share in the revenue from slot machines at both tracks, so as that number grows, so does the amount that can be invested in purses and breeders’ supplements.”

‘Lifers’ like Rod Therres see the next few years going a little differently.

“We’re going to be losing more horses every year,” said Therres. “And a lot of people feel that what [GCGC] wants. Pretty soon we’ll be down to one day a week. We used to race four, five days a week.”

“We’re gonna live,” said Therres. “The horses are gonna eat, whether we cancel or not.”

But more is at risk than that, according to Therres. “It’s more a way of life, than making a living,” he said.