11/24/2006 1:00AM

Meet handle bucks downturn trend

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - It's been a frustrating year for all factions of the British Columbia racing industry. Although Hastings received approval from the Vancouver city council to install slot machines back in 2004, there still are no signs that the slots will be up and running anytime soon.

Because purses this year were based on projected slot revenue that never came, there was a 20 percent purse cut in October.

Despite all that, Chuck Keeling, vice-president of racing for the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, owner of Hastings, is still upbeat about the local industry, and he was very encouraged by how well the betting held up this year.

Before the season began, Keeling wasn't expecting an increase in the handle on live Hastings races. After five years of steady gains, he was hoping that the handle wouldn't drop, like it has in most of the other tracks in Canada. Instead it rose about $8,000 per race.

"I'm a bit flabbergasted at how well we did," Keeling said. "The per-race average is close to $100,000, and that's up from about $92,000 last year. Because of the fluctuation with how many races we run each year, the per-race average is what we look at when we try to judge how we're doing from a betting perspective. Other than at Northlands, which is up about 1 percent, the rest of the tracks in Canada are down."

Keeling attributes the increase to a good product at Hastings. He also added that most of the increase in betting is coming from offtrack wagering.

"We had really good competitive racing this year," he said. "Owners like Swift Thoroughbreds, Glen Todd, and Bob Cheema brought in a lot of outside horses and it really helped our program.

"There were a lot of great rivalries, which not only made for great racing, but it was very positive from a business standpoint. We're down ontrack, but that was expected when we opened teletheater centers in the River Rock and Boulevard casinos."

Hastings management will take a different approach to next year's racing season. Instead of waiting for the slots to arrive, Keeling said that the track would be more aggressive in updating the facility.

"We're not going to sit back like we did last year," he said. "We know the slots are eventually going to be installed, but instead of waiting for that to happen, we plan to do the very best we can with this facility. If we get the go-ahead for the slots, we'll switch gears."

Next year's dates have been confirmed and there will be 10 fewer days, Keeling said, The 2007 live meet is scheduled to begin on April 28 and end Nov. 4.

One of the things that held up the installation of the slots was a lawsuit that was filed by the Hastings Park Conservancy, a local citizens' group. The lawsuit, which sought to prevent the slots from being installed at Hastings, was dismissed earlier in the year. The Conservancy has appealed the decision and it could take up to 10 months for a final decision top be rendered.

"We were heartened by the original court decision," said Howard Blank, vice president of media and entertainment for the Great Canadian Casino Corp. "And we are moving ahead with negotiations with the city for the final permit."

Trick of the North solid chalk

When Trick of the North was shipped to Alberta this summer, his owners, the Aurora Stable, were hoping to avoid some of the top horses at Hastings. Unfortunately for them, Quiet Cash and True Metropolitan went to Alberta as well. Quiet Cash was the top handicap horse and sprinter at Hastings in 2005 and True Metropolitan has been one of the best horses on dirt in Canada this year.

Trick of the North acquitted himself well, though, finishing second to Quiet Cash in the City of Edmonton Handicap July 29 and also second to True Metropolitan in the Westerner Aug. 20. He was an easy winner of a restricted allowance race when he returned to Hastings Nov. 12, and he figures to be a solid favorite in the seventh race on Sunday.

"He's been a good horse for them," said Trick of the North's trainer, Ron Jewell. "He's only missed picking up a check once since they claimed him last year for $25,000."

Jewell likes the way Trick of the North is coming into the closing-day feature. "As long as he gets a good trip he should be right there," he said.

Trainer race down to the wire

The trainer race could be decided on closing day. Heading into the final weekend, Terry Clyde had a three-win lead over Barb Heads. Clyde has seven horses entered over the two days, Heads has nine.

"Terry told me a few weeks ago that she didn't have any bullets left, but I've noticed that she's been entering as many horses as I have," said Heads. "It could be an interesting weekend. But she's clearly the favorite to win the title, and I'll be happy for her if she does."

It could come down to the last race on Sunday, in which Clyde has three horses entered.