Harness racing at Fraser Downs Racetrack and Casino in Cloverdale. Gaming Minister Rich Coleman predicts both standardbred and thoroughbred racing styles are here for the long run.

Horse track merger idea unlikely: Coleman

Racetrack consolidation idea would drop with lease renewal at Hastings Park

The provincial minister in charge of gaming is dismissing renewed talk of the Lower Mainland’s two horse racing tracks merging at a single site any time soon.

Rich Coleman said he now believes the City of Vancouver will soon sign a long-term lease to renew thoroughbred horse racing at Hastings Park, putting to rest talk of that operation joining the Fraser Downs standardbred track at Cloverdale.

And he said a new five-year strategic plan for the horse racing industry set for release as early as August will likely call for significant changes but continued operation of both tracks.

“I think the recommendation at the end of the day may be to see if they can sustain themselves at their individual tracks,” Coleman said.

Vancouver’s delay in signing a deal to keep Hastings Park – required by the end of this year – and that council’s goal of tripling green space in the park had fueled speculation horse racing there might soon be ushered out.

Running both racing styles at one dual-circuit track isn’t impossible, but Coleman said it would be off the table as long as separate tracks have secure homes and are viable.

Consolidating tracks in Surrey at Cloverdale would require moving barns to make room for an expanded racing footprint.

“It’s not cheap – it’s probably in the $10-million range,” Coleman said. “But if you’re going to sustain an industry and the 7,000 overall jobs it supports, you’d probably make that investment – if you had a good business plan to back it up.”

He expects one recommendation in the pending report will be to split the current horse racing management body that runs both styles of racing.

“The two industries probably need to be decoupled to pursue separate and unique business strategies,” Coleman said, adding he believes that may be the formula for long-term sustainability.

That would see thoroughbred and standardbred racing allocated separate funding sources to run their individual breeding and other operations, according to business models that fit their needs.

“They have a different betting group and different clienteles,” he added.

Hastings Park has done well attracting upscale gamblers and urbanites to the races, in part with concerts and other attractions, he said.

In contrast, he said attendance for harness racing at Cloverdale’s Fraser Downs is flat and needs to focus on offering a more family-oriented experience.

Both tracks are owned by Great Canadian Gaming, but Coleman suggested another change could allow the firm to sell off one or both of the horse racing operations.

“It comes down to the track operator – whether they want to be in the business,” he said. “They may want to have the horse racing side separate from them because it’s not their core business.”

Cloverdale business leaders have also expressed concern a proposed new casino in South Surrey could threaten Fraser Downs by cannibalizing its business.

Coleman confirmed the government wants to develop the new casino at 10 Avenue and 168 Street, replacing a community gaming centre in Newton.

“It won’t affect Cloverdale at all,” he said. “There are 500,000 people in Surrey and the market needed for a casino is between 75,000 and 100,000 people. All our market studies tell us it won’t affect Cloverdale’s business.”

Coleman pledged government funding for racing will continue.

The province funnels all of its revenue from horse racing to the industry and added more from slot machine gambling in recent years to help stabilize the racing industry.

He said the industry needed a secure multi-year outlook in order to give breeders and other participants certainty.

Harness Racing BC CEO Doug McCallum is upbeat about the future of the standardbred racing, adding more horses are being bred and wagering is up this year – particularly online.

“I have confidence it’s going to stay,” he said, adding a return to a longer racing season has helped. “We’re in pretty good shape this year and going into next year.”

As for consolidation at a dual track in Cloverdale, McCallum said it works in Toronto, where both styles sometimes race the same night.

But he stressed no business case has been developed, something that might only be pursued if talks with Vancouver fell through or only result in a short-term extension for Hastings.

“For a lot of good reasons, Fraser Downs has a good spot to have a dual track,” McCallum said, adding the horse industry is largely in Cloverdale and in the Fraser Valley and would prefer not to drive their horses through Vancouver traffic to Hastings.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said the city would be open to the idea if it was recommended by the province and the racing industry.

“If it’s feasible, we’d certainly welcome the combination of the two tracks at Fraser Downs,” she said.

Vancouver Coun. Raymond Louie said Vancouver has historically supported racing at Hastings Park but is prepared to put the land to new park use on behalf of citizens if the province or the operators decide it no longer works there.

“It’s not a situation of support or not support, but let’s see if we can make sure they’re given a fair chance to operate there.”

Great Canadian officials declined to comment.