10/29/2001 1:00AM

Canada West's entire stock on the sale block


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Horse racing in Vancouver is at a crossroads. Horsemen have been waiting to hear news concerning the sale of Hastings Park to the Woodbine Entertainment Group, hoping that a new operator who is willing to invest in the industry will help turn things around.

Canada West Ranches, which has been one of the most powerful stables in Western Canada for more than 25 years, and is the leading owner in both purses and races won at Hastings Park this year, isn't waiting for the news. They have decided to put all 70 of the horses they have left up for sale and may or may not be around to see which way things go. "It's not a fire sale," said Randy Shields, the main player in Canada West. "We're not giving them away. If we don't get a reasonable price for a horse, we'll keep him and run him next year. But everything is for sale including weanlings, yearlings, and broodmares."

Canada West was founded by Randy's father, Jimmy, and beginning with Love Your Host in the early 1970's, they have campaigned many stakes winners throughout the years. This year they have won 22 races at Hastings Park and won the B.C. Cup Distaff with Princess Premier. Canada West races homebreds and the main reason that they are cutting back the scale of their operation is the sale of their farm in Abbotsford, B.C.

"We actually sold the property 10 years ago and now that all of the options have been exercised, we have to move," said Shields.

Shields also said that if the Woodbine deal had gone through earlier, Canada West might have been more aggressive in trying to find another farm. "How many years now have we heard that there would be a new track? We keep hearing that it's going to be announced in two weeks but it never seems to happen."

The shortage of horses hasn't helped the live product, but Phil Heard, the general manager of Hastings Park, was happy with the way the year has gone. "The year has been extremely successful for us," he said. "For the first time in five-years the live handle, counting all sources, is actually up. Unfortunately the attendance and live handle ontrack is down. Plus, our simulcasting wagering is up, which is good news and bad news. Clearly our customers are moving away from the live product to bet on other tracks and the main reason is field size."

Hastings Park averages just over seven horses a race and Heard knows that those numbers have to improve in order to get fans back to the races. "The disturbing thing is that the numbers of horses available reflect on the state of the industry and we as an industry have a problem we have to address."

Heard was willing to accept part of the responsibility of turning things around, but he also noted that the other partners in the industry needed to their part also. "I think that the CTHS [Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society] shouldn't be worrying about running the races on B.C. Cup Day but should focus more on running tours, getting horses here that people can get close to. Teach people that you don't have to be a four-star millionaire to own a horse."

Heard also suggested that the Horsemen's Benevolent Protective Agency needs to put more effort in attracting new owners as well. "We need to work together as an industry, it can't all be on our shoulders."