04/11/2013 1:05PM

Hastings: Attendance, handle gains will be tough to duplicate


VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Over the last two years Hastings saw gains in both attendance and handle, and management is hoping the trend continues when the 2013 season gets under way Saturday. It might be hard to top the early numbers from 2012, though.

It was a perfect storm in 2012, with unseasonable dry weather, a first-round loss by the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the implausible run by local jockey Mario Gutierrez aboard I’ll Have Another.

People came out in droves to watch Gutierrez win the Kentucky Derby, and the loudest noise heard here in years came when he and I’ll Have Another got up in the last jump to win the Preakness. Despite the late defection of I’ll Have Another in the Belmont, Hastings was once again packed with people watching the1 1/2-mile classic on a big screen set up in the infield.

“We had momentum coming out of 2011, and with everything coming together we just took off at the beginning of the meet,” said Raj Mutti, general manager at Hastings. “Mario’s incredible story obviously had a lot to do with the tremendous success we had early last year, and, hopefully, people will remember how much fun they had and come back this year for the Triple Crown races. We’re certainly going to do everything we can to remind them of it.”

Mutti is optimistic about the upcoming meet, but he also is well aware of the challenges facing the local horse racing industry.

“The whole West Coast has a shortage of horses, and we’re not immune to the problem,” Mutti said. “Right now, we have about 50 horses less than we had on the grounds last year. We have a great group of horsemen, though, and they are aware how important field size is to our business.”

Last year, the average field size at Hastings was 7.63, up from 7.22 the year before. That compares favorably to the two other Pacific Northwest tracks – Emerald Downs, 6.36, and Portland Meadows, 6.63.

It was a bit of a struggle taking entries Wednesday morning, but 60 horses made the overnight. If the card holds together, the average field size for opening day will be roughly the same as last year, when 61 horses started.

Despite the increased live mutuel handle in 2012, there will be a 5 percent purse cut this year. The decrease is due to lower simulcast numbers over the winter. What really hurt was the dispute between Woodbine and the Hong Kong Jockey Club that resulted in Canadians not being able to bet on the races from Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong racing has always been very popular here, and the loss of their signal is a big problem,” Mutti said. “We are working on being able to bet directly into their pools and not be reliant on agreements between other parties. Their pools are some of the biggest in the world, and I think it would be a big boost to our overall handle if we’re able to work it out.”

Mutti is hopeful all the pieces will be in place this fall.

Mutti also added that while the simulcast numbers were down over the winter, the good news is that they have increased in March.

“A lot of the problem was the loss of days due to inclement weather on the East Coast,” Mutti said. “It is encouraging to see we’re heading in the right direction again.”

Change to purse funding

The Horse Racing Management Committee moved over the winter to bolster purse levels. The committee is in charge of managing horse racing in British Columbia.

Because slot revenue earned at Hastings and the local Standardbred track Fraser Downs didn’t generate the amount of money expected, the horse racing industry relied on money from the government to top up purses. But instead of settling for a grant, the committee was able to increase the share of what the industry receives from slot revenue from the two tracks by roughly 10 percentage points, to 25 percent.

“It guarantees some stability,” said Glen Todd, the leading owner at Hastings and a member of the committee. “A grant can be taken away at any time, but now we have a set-in-stone formula.”

The expected slot revenue is $10 million, which is divided between the two breeds. The committee has budgeted $9.2 million for purses at Hastings this year.

“We’re being cautious,” Todd said. “If either the slot revenue or handle picks up, we can always raise the purses.”

Track searches for racing director

Hastings will start the meet without a director or racing. Paul Ryneveld resigned the position in March to take a job with Century Casinos, a Colorado-based casino company in the process of trying to build a casino and racetrack in southern Alberta. Matt Jukich, director of player development, morning-line maker, and paddock host, is filling in until Hastings finds a permanent replacement. Jukich 28, grew up at the track. His father, Dan Jukich, has been the announcer at Hastings since 1990.