07/05/2007 11:00PM

Live handle down from last year


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The live handle at Hastings is down considerably compared with last year. Part of the reason for the substantial decline is that there have been fewer racing days this year, 22 as compared with 26 last year, but the daily average all-sources average handle on Hastings races is also down, by 13.7 percent.

Comparing figures through July 2, the total live ontrack handle at Hastings this year is $6,475,146, while last year, with four more days, the total was $8,459,426. That's a 23.5 percent drop overall, a 9.5 percent drop in daily average.

The total live handle - all sources included - on Hastings was $24,222,192 in 2006. This year, $17,695,646 has been wagered on the live product, which represents a 26.9 percent decline.

Part of the reason for the large decline in the live handle is that people in British Columbia are now allowed to bet directly into the large California pools.

Last year, British Columbians who bet on races running in California were forced to bet into a Canada-wide pool. Since Woodbine didn't carry Northern California racing, the pools for Golden Gate and Bay Meadows were miniscule. This year the average amount bet on California racing - when live racing is on at Hastings - is around $100,000. That's twice as much as last year, and the amount bet on Northern California has gone from about $8,000 a day to close to $40,000.

"We've seen it happening all across Canada, so we weren't surprised about the trend to bet into the large pools in the United States," said Chuck Keeling, the track's director of racing. "I guess the good news is that when you look at the total handle, including what we bet on simulcasting, wagering is up in the province."

Keeling said the ontrack handle is still the bread and butter of the business, but there has been a concerted effort to build up an infrastructure that helps people wager when they can't make it to Hastings, and it's paying off.

"We're seeing a lot more handle coming in from River Rock and the Boulevard casinos," said Keeling. "Plus, people are betting more from home. It's also not just the live handle any more. Because of that, though, it makes it important for us to improve our product at home in order to compete with the other tracks."

Because the amount of money bet on other tracks is helping offset the decline on the live handle, there will not be a purse cut.

"The purse pool is in good shape," said Raj Mutti, director of operations. "We should be fine for the rest of the year, and we want to run as many races as possible."

Weather, construction both hurt

Along with the poor weather in Vancouver this year, another factor in the decline in the live handle has been the disruption all the construction going on at Hastings has caused. Just about every racing day a portion of the grandstand has been closed in order to waterproof the floor below. Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, which owns Hastings, is in negations with the city of Vancouver regarding a long-term lease for the site, and also the development permit, which should be the final piece that will allow the slots to be installed. Because of the ongoing negotiations, management at Hastings will not officially say that the construction is for the installation of the 600 slot machines that have been approved by the city, but it seems apparent that is what the construction is related to.

It's also more than probable that the former Fat Choy Room is being turned into a slots area, where about 175 to 200 machines will likely be installed. According to city officials, that could be very soon.

Jack back in business

Trainer Allan Jack isn't sure what to expect from Stephanson in the $50,000 Chris Loseth Stakes at 1 1/16 miles Sunday. The reason Jack isn't sure is that he is just getting back on his feet after nearly dying from a heart attack a few weeks ago. While Jack, who actually quit breathing when he collapsed on the Hastings backstretch, was in the hospital recovering, his assistant trainer, Dale Price, ran the stable.

"Dale said he was doing fine, so I imagine he'll run a good race," said Jack. "I'm just happy to be here."

Stephanson ran a very strong race the first time he stretched out to a middle distance in a no-conditions allowance race June 10. He set decent fractions under pressure the whole way and he was still able to hold off a determined bid by Beckenbauer.

Dino Condilenios, who trains Beckenbauer, was impressed by Stephanson's performance.

"Beckenbauer is training better than any horse in my barn right now," said Condilenios. "Everyone thinks Ookashada is the horse to beat, but Stephanson ran a huge race last time, and I think he'll be very tough right back. Considering how bad the track was, those were really fast fractions he posted. Honestly, I was a bit surprised to see him hold on."