Members of B.C.’s harness racing industry – particularly the horsemen at Fraser Downs in Cloverdale – are breathing a sigh of relief.
Stakeholders reached agreement last Friday on a deal that guarantees live racing at Fraser Downs, and extends the funding arrangement, for the next five years.
The multi-year deal was agreed to by Great Canadian Gaming Corp., which operates Fraser Downs Racetrack and Casino and Hastings Racecourse, and the standardbred and thoroughbred sector.
The deal, finalized by the B.C. Horse Racing Industry Management Committee, is subject to approval by the provincial Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch.
“We feel this will create an atmosphere of stability that will benefit breeders, owners, trainers, bettors and race track personnel,” management committee chair Douglas S. Scott said in a statement, explaining racing and funding arrangements are in place for the thoroughbred sector for the next three years and provides for a six-month season of up to 55 race days.
“With the funding arrangements stabilized, the committee will now turn our attention to the longer-term issues of attracting new bettors and growing the business.”
The agreement sets out 34 approved race days at Fraser Downs between January and April in 2014, with another 37 race days scheduled in the fall, from September to December – for a total of 71 days.
But the deal means the season at Fraser Downs will shrink from 71 to 62 days over seven months in 2015, and to just six months in 2016, something local horsemen have been lobbying against.
“Of course we would like more race dates,” said Jackson Whittup, executive director of Harness Racing B.C., the association representing standardbred breeders, owners, trainers and drivers.
“The major component of this for us is the five-year deal,” he said. “We’ve been told we have government backing for five years. We have race dates for five years. I think a lot of other jurisdictions would be jealous that we have it.”
The deal says income from a portion of slot machine profits at the casinos at Fraser Downs and at Hastings Racecourse will continue to be divided between the standardbred and thoroughbred sector.
Reaction in the backstretch to the deal is mixed because it means a six-month racing schedule for four years, says standardbred owner and trainer Sandra Roberts.
“Some people believe we’ve just slit our own throats,” she said. “I look at it as an opportunity to grow.” Five years of guaranteed racing means breeders, for example, will have an incentive to breed foals, a lifeline for the industry.
For Whittup, it also means time to pursue other racing options during the summer. With a deal in place, it’s now up to the Harness Racing B.C. board to explore those possibilities.
“We’ve been given time to go out and execute some of those options for our members’ sake,” he said. “Could we possibly race two months during the summer at Kamloops or another venue? Obviously, there’s a cost.”
Holding exhibition races at another track is another possibility. “There have been exhibition standardbred races in Chilliwack,” he said.
Racing is underway at Fraser Downs to the end of April and resumes in September. It’s anticipated racing will begin at Hastings in late April or early May, continuing to November.
The deal ends several months of negotiations.
“Call it reluctant consensus,” said Chuck Keeling, executive director of stakeholder relations at Great Canadian Gaming, which operates both race tracks.
“We wanted to see some certainty and some stability over a multiple number of years,” he said. “Over the last couple of years, it’s been done on a year-to-year basis.”