04/24/2008 12:00AM

New meet offers fans new look

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Signs posted at some of the entrances to Hastings read, "Yes, we are open." They are necessary because the track is undergoing renovations to install 600 slot machines and a new entertainment area and the site looks more like a construction zone than a race track. New walls seem to spring up out of nowhere on a daily basis, and it isn't easy navigating your way around the facility, even if you know it well.

When live racing begins Saturday, the diminished space caused by the construction is is going to put the Hastings staff under a lot of pressure as they try to accommodate what figures to be a large opening-day crowd.

Chuck Keeling, the director of racing for Great Canadian Gaming Corp., the parent company of Hastings, has been through this before and is confident that patrons won't be too inconvenienced. Keeling oversaw the construction of the slots floor at Fraser Downs, a harness track that is located in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver.

"I think we're in a better situation at Hastings than we were at Fraser Downs," said Keeling. "There are a couple of advantages Hastings has over Fraser. Number one, Hastings is a bigger facility and it's not as disjointed as Fraser was when we did the renovations there."

Also, according to Keeling, Hastings will have its slots floor up and running in a lot less time than it took to renovate Fraser Downs.

"Fraser was in construction for a year and a half, and we know that sometime this year we will be done at Hastings," said Keeling. "I think that's the biggest advantage. We know it's going to be done relatively soon as opposed to dragging on like the Fraser project."

According to Howard Blank, vice president of media and entertainment for Great Canadian, the new slots floor is scheduled to open mid-summer.

It is hard to say how the inconveniences associated with the construction will impact attendance and the live handle. Keeling is optimistic the new offtrack wagering sites in the greater Vancouver regional district that opened over the winter, will help offset any drop off in attendance.

"Let's face it," said Keeling. "We have less space and it could become a problem at Hastings. It's good to know there are other facilities, and first-class ones at that, now dotted throughout the GVRD to backfill some of that demand."

When the Woodbine Entertainment Group bought Hastings in 2002, it said that the introduction of local offtrack wagering facilities were just as important to revitalizing the local horse racing industry as slots. One of the reasons they sold Hastings to Great Canada in 2004 was frustration in getting municipalities to approve the sites.

A couple of new facilities opened over the winter, and, according to Keeling, the numbers coming in from all of the offtrack sites are growing exponentially.

"Just look at the numbers," he said. "As we've opened up the new sites people are definitely responding. Five years ago we didn't have any and now we have four. That's a nice start to a distribution network within the GVRD."

After hitting rock bottom last year, things are certainly looking up for the local horse racing industry. Purses are 20 percent higher and three racing days were added to this year's schedule. According to Keeling, at least two more racing days are slated for next year, and possibly more in the future.

"We're going to start a week earlier next year, and we would prefer to add days within the current confines of the race meet," he said. "If it makes sense from a business perspective we could expand the meet in the future as well."

Keeling was looking forward to the beginning of a year in which the local industry should start moving forward.

"This season is no different than last season in that it's going to be very challenging," he said. "Unlike last season, though, it's going to be challenging for all the right reasons."

The renovations currently under way are part of a larger project to revitalize not only the grandstand but also the barn area. Under the operating agreement Great Canadian recently signed with the City of Vancouver, the barn area must be rebuilt by 2012.

"We're not really sure what the new barn area will look like right now," said Raj Mutti, general manager at Hastings. "We have looked at a lot of proposals and we've narrowed it down to a couple."

It is also possible a new surface could be installed at Hastings. Many of the local trainers that raced at Golden Gate last winter were impressed with the Tapeta surface there, and their enthusiasm has rubbed off on management at Hastings.

"We heard nothing but good things about it from our horsemen and we're going to see how it holds up at the Golden Gate spring-summer meet," said Mutti. "In a project this size we're willing to explore anything and everything that will improve racing here."

Mutti had an exploratory meeting earlier this year with Michael Dickinson regarding the installation of Tapeta. Dickinson is the creator of Tapeta and is the owner of the company that installs the surface, Tapeta Footings Inc.