06/05/2003 11:00PM

Bringing fun - and handle - back to racing

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - It has been just more than a year since the Woodbine Entertainment Group bought out the Pacific Racing Association and took over the running of Hastings Park. Woodbine formed a new corporate entity called Hastings Entertainment and changed the name of the track to Hastings, no more park.

It still feels like a park-like atmosphere at the track, however. There's always some sort of event happening, and although attendance figures haven't been kept since the new group eliminated the admission fee, clearly a lot more people are coming to the racetrack than a year ago.

The skyrocketing handle on race days is a strong indication that what appeared to be a sinking ship has been steadied, and if the proposed slot machines are approved next month by Vancouver City Council, there's no telling how far the racing scene in Vancouver can go.

A combination of a progressive marketing strategy and fuller fields has resulted in a tremendous boost to the live per-race average handle. The ontrack live per-race average is up 13 percent from last year and the total per-race average is up a whopping 23 percent. Part of the reason for the large increase is the involvement of Woodbine, which is the biggest racing center in Canada. Hastings is now a major part of the Woodbine simulcasting program and without the takeover, that probably wouldn't be the case.

"What we've found has really worked in our marketing scheme has been the idea that a day at the races is supposed to be a fun day," said Phil Heard, Hastings president. "We're not focusing so much on the gaming part of it, but more that if you come to the races, you're going to get a full entertainment experience."

Last weekend Hastings held an Asian festival, and the response was tremendous.

"It was pretty phenomenal," said Heard. "We didn't put on a lot of things - some dancers, bands, what have you - but the fans loved it. I can't remember getting so many positive responses."

The mix of the crowd is also a lot different than in the past. It's hard to say that Hastings has become an "in" place to be in Vancouver, but there are a lot more young-hip types showing up.

"We feel that if the quality of the racing improves, and it has with very good field sizes so far, that our hard-core racing customers will come back," said Heard. "And they're starting to. With our focus on this place as an entertainment center, we're hoping to attract new fans that will learn about horse racing and discover what a great sport it really is."

Alberta Derby next for Gamblin Caper

Gamblin Caper came out of his win in the Klondike in excellent shape and will make his next start in next Saturday's Alberta Derby at Stampede Park in Calgary.

"He'll just gallop into the race," said his trainer, Terry Jordan. "He's a slight horse and he's plenty fit so I don't think he needs a work before next week."

Bold 'n Keen won't go in Longden

Bold 'n Keen became a stakes winner for the first time with a game win over Commodore Craig in the Hong Kong Jockey Club last Saturday. He wasn't on the nomination list for the 1 1/16-mile John Longden Stakes, which goes next Saturday.

"I'm going to keep him sprinting for now," said his trainer, Rob Vanoverschot. "He's still eligible for a $50,000 optional nonwinners-of-two, and if one fills he'll likely be in it."

Lord Nelson figures to be odds-on if he runs in the Longden, but his trainer, Dino Condilenios, isn't firmly committed to the race because he's looking ahead to the $100,000 Lt. Governors' on July 1.

"It's only a couple of weeks before the Lt. Governors' and if he wins the Longden, they'll probably give him more weight." he said. "But it's sure tempting after seeing how the race shapes up."

Condilenios also said that Lord Nelson, who has had problems with quarter cracks throughout his career, will go back to running in normal racing shoes after struggling over the track in bar shoes while finishing third in the Hong Kong Jockey Club.