09/29/2011 11:46AM

Hastings looking for strong close to meet

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – It looked like it could be a disastrous season in terms of mutuel handle when Hastings started the 2011 meet in April. The daily average the first couple months of the season was down close to 17 percent compared to 2010. There was a dramatic turn around, however, and according to Hastings general manager Raj Mutti, going into the final weekend the daily average is now up for the year by close to 4 percent.

There also isn’t much doubt that the closing weekend figures will be substantially higher than last year. Both cards Saturday and Sunday feature mostly full fields, and despite losing its Grade 3 status this year, the $100,000 Premiers drew a solid field of 12 horses going 1 3/8 miles. Also on the 11-race card Sunday is the Grade 3, $100,000 Ballerina, which drew 12 fillies and mares.

“We should finish strong,” Mutti said. “We have two great cards. Saturday might get a little lost in the shuffle with all the big races at Santa Anita and Belmont, but we should get a lot of exposure on Sunday.”

Mutti blamed the weather and the Vancouver Canucks hockey team for the slow start to the meet.

“It really was a tale of two meets,” Mutti said. “We couldn’t have had worse weather this spring, and most of the city was focused on the Canucks trying to win the Stanley Cup. Our numbers couldn’t have been worse in April, May, and June”

The change in fortune started in July, and it has continued on through the end of the meet.

“We started to see momentum build in July with big gains in attendance, and the mutuel numbers just keep growing,” Mutti said. “That’s with a weaker U.S. dollar, too. Half of our wagering dollars come from the U.S., and if we were working with the same dollar as last year, our handle would be up considerably.”

Clearly the focus on attracting a younger crowd to the track has worked. Hastings has become a hip place to go on Friday nights and in a recent survey taken by a local newspaper, it was voted the “best place in Vancouver to make a bet.”

“What we are finding is the young people that have been coming on Friday are starting to show up on Saturday and Sunday.” Mutti said. “They are also wagering more as they learn more about horse racing.”

Mutti is hoping the momentum will continue next year.

“Hopefully, Mother Nature will cooperate next year, which should help our field size,” he said. “We’re going to continue focusing on the younger demographic but also on the veteran horseplayer. We dropped our takeout on our win, place, and show bets and also on the pick four and pick five this year. Over the winter, we will be reviewing all of our products on our wagering menu and also what we can do better next year.”

Field size will continue to be a challenge in the Pacific Northwest, especially with Portland Meadows planning to run a summer meet. At Hastings, the average number of starters per race this year is about 7.1.

“Our field size is a concern, but our owners are buying the right kind of horses and we have been putting on a competitive product, which has helped us attract more simulcast partners,” Mutti said. “Between Hastings, Portland, Northlands, and Emerald Downs there could be 300 race dates with a pool of about 2,500 horses next year. Something has to give.”

Big Hastings contingent in Phoenix

A hockey game could break out in Phoenix this winter, with a large number of Canadian trainers headed to Turf Paradise.

Hastings-based Steve Henson is going for the third year in a row.

“We love it there,” Henson said. “The weather is great, the track is beautiful, and I think I’ve learned what type of horse to take there.”

Henson has already shipped a few horses there with his son Robbie Henson. Bonboni, who is coming off a win in the $50,000 Derby Bar and Grill Express on Sept. 11 is entered in the $35,000 Bienvenidos on Saturday.

“Robbie said he had a great work over the track, and he should run a big race,” Henson said.

Joining Henson from Hastings will be Terry Clyde, Phil Hall, Barbara Heads, and Frank Barroby.

Berg, part of starting gate crew, dies

Carl Berg, a member of the Hastings starting gate crew, died from injuries suffered in a car accident Wednesday morning.

According to steward Wayne Russell, a former starter at Hastings, Berg had worked on the starting gate for more than 40 years.

“We were schooling horses at Lansdowne in 1968 or 69 when he first started working on the gate,” Russell said. “He was also a great handyman. If I had a pipe break at home in the middle of the night, he would be the first guy to call.”

“It is a major loss to us and his family,” current starter Joe Gray said.

Berg, who was 67, is survived by his wife Margaret and son Joe.