Goodbye to Hastings Racecourse?

May 1, 2012

Horatio Kemeny trails his horse, a Kentucky-bred three-year-old named Thimble, into the oval of Hastings Racecourse. It’s a cool, drizzly February morning, and the normally hard-packed ground of this storied East Side track has the viscosity of oatmeal.

It’s training season still, two months before actual competition, and the nervous tension and fluorescent fabrics of race day haven’t yet arrived. In their place is the optimism of the preseason and the rain gear of exercise riders casually jogging their rides around the track. An apprentice jockey, 23-year-old Marlo Dunn, halts her horse to talk to Kemeny. She spent the off-season working in an office for $16 an hour and completing a long-delayed high school diploma, and is only now getting back into riding. “I’m having too much fun!” she calls out.

Kemeny, 43, first came to Hastings as a kid in the heyday of the early 1980s. He and buddy Mark Mache were brought by Mache’s grandmother, a racing enthusiast, but they soon rode their bikes to the track on their own. Not long after they graduated from St. George’s, they founded Mindspan, which produced Hardball, the most popular baseball video game of the Atari and Sega eras.

The two launched their stable, Swift Thoroughbreds, in 2002. One of the largest local operations, Swift races over two dozen horses at Hastings, many of them acquired through an arrangement with Darley Stables, owned by Dubai’s reigning monarch, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

“We came in with a bunch of horses we thought were really good,” recalls Kemeny, who wears glasses and a closely clipped reddish beard. “We thought we would own the place—and lost our first 25 races. It was a humbling experience.”

Now part of Blitzoo, which creates video games for social media, Kemeny is working on a slot machine title where one plays for fun, not money. “We’ve thought about doing a horse­racing game,” he says. “But is there a market? I’m not sure.” Kemeny describes his stable as a labour of love—one that comes at a stiff price: Swift’s annual operating budget is in seven figures; the stable’s 2011 winnings were $570,629.

Kemeny and Mache can afford to ride out the losses, but increasingly it seems the sport cannot. Tracks around the continent are suffering, and Hastings, founded in 1889, is no exception. In the past decade, the number of horses in any given race has dropped (a crowded field signals a healthy ownership base and translates into greater wagering interest), and the number of patrons has declined sharply as well.

“Many of the old-timers are dying off,” says Howard Blank, VP of media, entertainment, and responsible gambling at Great Canadian Gaming, which operates the track. “The most important thing is trying to bring in new people to enjoy the sport.”

Blank’s company recently described racing as a “sunsetting” industry, but he adds that Hastings is one of only three tracks in North America to boost attendance lately. That’s in part thanks to 30-year-old GM Raj Mutti, who’s been luring a younger demographic, often in big hats and seersucker suits, with live music and movie nights. But the majority of younger gamblers are resistant—slots and blackjack, online football and hockey are quicker and easier ways to lose money than playing the ponies.

Betting at Hastings actually rose last year (if you include wagers from off-track bettors watching on TV or streaming video), but the “handle,” the pool of money bet at the track itself, is down $8 million since 2007. (It currently stands just shy of $10 million.)

When the lease expires at the end of the year, Great Canadian, which has been reluctant to fulfill the city’s demands for facility upgrades, may well run for the hills.

 

 With his thick mop of hair and circumspect squint, Glen Todd, 67, is a familiar presence at Hastings, often chatting with other regulars on the track apron. His horses, which he owns with political lobbyist Patrick Kinsella, regularly top the local leader board. A customs broker, Todd also owns the Derby Grill, a restaurant and off-track betting parlour near the border.

As a member of the BC Horseracing Revitalization Committee—formed in 2009 to spark a recovery in the ailing industry—Todd is charged with creating a $1.3 million marketing plan for the sport and with securing more funding, both public and private. Last year, the committee drummed up an annual commitment of $10 million in government grants. Todd also founded the North American Thoroughbred Company, a syndicate that aims to bring new owners to the sport at a nominal monthly fee through shared ownership.

Todd has been a thoroughbred owner since 1972, but his link to the track started in 1939, on the day his parents first met at Hastings Park. Known first as East Park and later Exhibition Park, Hastings on a race day back then was the equivalent of the Granville Strip now on a Saturday night. Archival photos show crowds of men 10 deep all fixed at the same angle to watch the horses gallop to the wire; winners’ photos feature women with finger-weave hairdos and furs.

When the war ended, the racing oval was expanded to its current five-eighths of a mile, which necessitated the demolition of the PNE’s original roller coaster, the Giant Dipper. The 5,000-seat grandstand was built in 1965, the same year the north end was levelled. According to legend, cars from the PNE demolition derby were used in the landfill.

By the 1980s, crowds of 16,000 would jam the track because of $100,000 Pick-Six carryover pots. It was the last hurrah before non-track betting exploded. Lotteries, casinos, online gaming—“There are only so many gambling dollars to go around,” says Horatio Kemeny.

To recoup lost earnings, Great Canadian in 2007 installed 600 slot machines under the track’s grandstand—some of the revenue would go to prize purses (a successful formula for other tracks, like Woodbine in Toronto) and facility upgrades, and the rest would fill municipal coffers. The city had hoped for $6.5 million in tax revenue from the slots. Last year it raked in a mere $1.23 million.

“It hasn’t come out as anyone predicted,” acknowledges city councillor Raymond Louie, who oversees strategic planning for the Hastings Sunrise neighbourhood. “Speculation had been that the track would have a windfall profit, but that crime and prostitution would materialize. None of that has occurred.”

Marketing is one problem: because of resident concerns, signage for the machines is practically nonexistent. Nearby casinos like Edgewater and Grand Villa have free parking, table games, and liquor licences; the gaming floor at Hastings does not. This leaves Todd, for one, unimpressed. “Ten bucks to park, you can’t take your wife for a drink, there aren’t enough people to start a fight—it’s a flop.”

Tracks like Bay Meadows in California and Stampede Park in Calgary have been shuttered in recent years; the survival of Hastings is uncertain. Which is why, after the summer meet, 5,000 jockeys, trainers, grooms, blacksmiths, vets, and track staff will be anxiously waiting to learn whether horseracing in Vancouver has seen its final turn.

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