04/24/2003 12:00AM

Future hinges on slots

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - With horses leaving to run for slot-fueled purses in other jurisdictions across Canada, horse racing is at a crossroads in British Columbia.

A report by Mario Lee, social planner for the city of Vancouver, will have a big impact on the future of horse racing in Vancouver. Lee has the task of reporting to the city council on the impact the addition of slot machines at Hastings would have for the city. Slots are currently banned in Vancouver.

Hastings management was hopeful that the report could be presented to the city council by May 20, but Lee says the report will probably not be ready until mid- to late June.

"I have to prepare a report that gives the positive and negative impact, from a social and economic perspective, that the addition of slot machines will have on the city," said Lee.

Lee also pointed out that there are many legal issues to consider, which will take time.

There's big money at stake here. A previous report to the city council noted that the city of Burnaby, a municipality that borders Vancouver, took in $6.2 million in one year from just 300 slot machines. That's more than the all of the money that Vancouver earned from its slots-less gambling operations. The report also pointed out that about 45,000 Vancouver residents played slots in Burnaby.

According to Lee, slot machine revenue would be divided three ways with 10 percent going to the city, 65 percent to the province, and the remaining 25 percent to the operator of the gambling facility.

You don't need to be a mathematician to see what just 300 slot machines at Hastings would mean to the local industry.

Following the previous report on slots, the council agreed to explore the issue of slot machines at Hastings. But the council was split on the issue, and it's no sure thing slots will be approved for Hastings.

"We're confident that they will give us the approval," said Phil Heard, president of Hastings. "We're very aware of their concerns regarding the social impact and we've been working hard to meet their needs."

Heard estimates that if slots are approved, the machines could be in place by next April and that purses would probable double by the following year. Heard is also hopeful that Hastings can return to a four-day raceweek if the slots are approved.

Physical changes at track

Hastings looks more like a construction zone than a racetrack these days. Major changes are under way to the paddock betting area, which is being transformed into a race book.

"Most of the changes are geared towards making our simulcast customers more comfortable," said Heard. "We're also adding an outside mutuel area for our live racing."

The racing surface will also undergo changes this year. According to track superintendent Drew Levere, 50 percent more sports grids, a synthetic material that helps hold moisture, will be added to the mix of clay, dirt, and sand.

"We would have put it on by now but you need at least three days of dry weather," said Levere, "Hopefully the weather will break any day now."

Levere said the track has held up remarkably well despite all of the rain this spring. It hasn't been easy for trainers to get their horses ready, though, as there has only been one fast track to train on since the beginning of March. As a result, both the Saturday and Sunday entries came up a bit light.

Many trainers were concerned that with only two days of racing per week all season, many of the top jockeys would leave to ride elsewhere. That hasn't happened and in fact there are more jockeys available this year than in 2002.

Sam Krasner, who missed all of last year following neck surgery, is back. Larry Lacoursiere is making a comeback after being away for several years and Cayetano Chaparro is up from Mexico. Last year's leading jockey, Pedro Alvarado, and leading apprentice, Nicola Wright, will also be riding.

AT A GLANCE

RACING SCHEDULE: 69 days; April 26 through Nov. 30, racing Saturdays and Sundays. Also holiday Mondays and Tuesday, July 1.

POST TIME: 1:23 p.m. Pacific, except Saturday, May 3, 12:30 p.m.

ADMISSIONS: Free; clubhouse (Diamond Club) $5.00.

SEATING: Box seats, $3.50

PARKING: $6.50, includes a $2.00 coupon for either a Keno ticket or racing program, also a $4.50 coupon toward food and beverage.

MEET HIGHLIGHT: $250,000 British Columbia Derby, Sept. 21; $387.000 B.C. Cup Day, Aug. 4

LOCATION: Pacific National Exhibition Grounds, located at the corner of Hastings and Renfrew, Vancouver, B.C.

PHONE: (604) 254-1631

INTERNET: www.hastingsracecourse.com