07/16/2009 11:00PM

Franco gets comfortable on track


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Apprentice jockey Geovanni Franco should start riding better horses at Hastings. Franco, 18, began his career at the Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City this year, where he won three races before he left. Franco didn't arrive at Hastings until the meet was well under way, on June 28, and it wasn't surprising that it took him a while to get going. Last weekend, he booted home two longshot winners: Solidago at $27.90 on Friday and Wanna Be Notised ($22.50) on Saturday. So far, he has ridden 16 horses at the meet.

"It was very nice to win a race here," Franco said through an interpreter. "I am happy to be riding here. The purses are nice, and the people have been very helpful."

Franco, who grew up in Mexico City, didn't have any background in racing when he showed up at the track a couple of years ago.

"A friend of mine took me to the track," Franco said. "I really didn't know much about it before then."

Franco rode close to 40 horses in Mexico before arriving here, and he is still making the adjustment to riding on a smaller track.

"I am feeling a lot more comfortable now," he said. "I am starting to ride more horses and I think I am really getting the feel of the place now."

One thing going for Franco is his light weight. He tacks 105 pounds, and trainers here are always looking for a break in the weights, especially when they stretch horses out. His mature demeanor also is a plus, and he has impressed jockey Mario Gutierrez with his patience as a rider. Gutierrez was the leading apprentice at Hastings in 2006 and the leading rider the past two years. He also began his career in Mexico City.

"He isn't nervous like most apprentices that are just starting to ride," Gutierrez said. "He already seems to know what he is doing. I've been pretty impressed with him."

Trainer Terry Jordan encouraged Franco to come to Hastings after seeing him ride in Mexico. Jordan also was the link that brought Gutierrez to Hastings.

"I saw a bit of Mario in him," Jordan said. "His agent in Mexico said he could ride, and he thought he would do well here. His agent there really looks after the welfare of his riders. He thought Geovanni could make a lot better living riding in Canada."

One thing Franco will have to work on in order to move to the next level is his English. There is a learning center at Hastings where English is taught, but Gutierrez, who acted as the interpreter for the interview and spoke no English when he arrived here in 2006, had another idea on the best way to learn a new language in a new country.

"He needs to get a girlfriend," Gutierrez said.

Proposed Alberta track chases funding

The United Horsemen of Alberta are getting closer to finalizing the financing needed to build the proposed track in Balzac, Alberta, according to a press release.

Max Gibb, the CEO of UHA, said they are in serious final discussions with a private equity company.

Earlier this year, Gibb said that UHA would need to secure financing by July 15 to have the stalled project completed for the 2010 racing season. The proposed one-mile track and entertainment center was supposed to open in 2007.

"This is such a big project, so the people we are dealing with are doing their due diligence," Gibb said. "The private equity company we are dealing with are very serious about the project. We may be able to make a positive announcement as early as next week."

UHA reportedly needs to raise $80 million to complete the project.

Mat Monaco, manager of the Alberta Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, was disappointed with the announcement.

"Once again, nothing definitive with respect to investment and financing of Balzac has yet to come to fruition," Monaco said. "Let it be clear that the HBPA is of the view that without racing in Calgary, the landscape for the industry will change dramatically."

One of the big issues facing horse racing in Alberta is that with no track in the Calgary area, there is no slot revenue coming from southern Alberta. According to Monaco, slots revenue accounts for roughly 65 percent of the purses in Alberta. No more slots revenue from the Calgary area was going into the purse pool after Stampede Park closed the casino there March 31. Purses will likely drop by 30 percent next year if a track in the Calgary area isn't running.