11/26/2004 12:00AM

Looking forward to slots, more racing days

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - While there were many exciting races during the 2004 Hastings meet that closes Sunday, the most dramatic events took place at Vancouver City Hall.

In July, Vancouver City Council voted to allow Hastings Entertainment Inc. the right to install slot machines at the track. There's still a long way to go before the slots are actually installed, but, with the green light, Hastings management, local horsemen, and breeders can begin planning for a brighter future.

The next step is getting the development permit approved. Once that happens, the backstretch and grandstand will undergo major renovations.

Michael Brown, the vice president and chief operating officer for HEI, doesn't want to wait for the slots to be installed before getting things moving, however.

"The first thing we want to do is have more racing days next year," he said. "I'm not sure how long it will take to get the development permit approved - I'm hoping by early spring at the latest - but we need to get the signal out to breeders and existing owners, as well as new owners, that they are going to have more opportunities to run their horses."

Brown said that Hastings will add a mid-week card in June through September. This will result in an additional 12 days of racing.

"Ultimately we want to get back to the traditional four-day week, and I'm sure that once our purses increase with the slot revenue, we'll have enough horses to be able to do that," said Brown. "I'm leaning towards Thursday, but there are still a lot of things to consider before we decide what day of the week we're actually going to add next year."

There are already signs that the local industry is headed in a positive direction, thanks mainly to California wagering on the Hastings product. Since Sept. 1, handle on the Hastings races has increased by 20 percent compared with last year and the ontrack live handle is up by 4 percent. For the year, handle on the Hastings races will be slightly down. Currently it's off by 3 percent and most of the decline can be attributed to the drop in wagering from Woodbine. When Hastings was owned by the Woodbine Entertainment Group, the Hastings card was prominently displayed, but when Woodbine Entertainment sold the track in April, the Hastings product was downplayed.

Canadian pools are down 27 percent for the year, but the increase from California more than offsets the difference and Brown thinks the bigger pools have helped increase the ontrack handle.

"Actually, this will be the third year in a row that the ontrack handle has increased," said Brown. "With California taking us, the pools have increased dramatically, and because the pools are larger this allows some of our bigger players to become more involved."

Many Canadian fans are asking when they will be able to wager directly into U.S. pools. According to Brown, it will probably be later than sooner.

"All of the track operators would like to see it happen as soon as possible, and from my viewpoint, it's very important for our customers and the horse racing industry in the long run," he said. "But the Canadian Parimutuel Agency has a lot of issues that need to be resolved. For instance, California has a four-second window where they can cancel wagers after the starting gate opens. When the bell sounds in Canada, that's it, you can't cancel anything. That's just one of the many issues that needs to be dealt with from a regulatory standpoint."

The 2005 live meet will begin April 16 and concludes Nov. 27. Horses will be allowed in the barn area for training Jan. 22.