04/14/2005 12:00AM

Owners foster sense of stability

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - For the past few years, the state of the horse racing industry in British Columbia has been very volatile. Hastings, which is the only major track in the province, has had three different operators since 2001.

At the beginning of the 2004 racing season, Great Canadian Gaming Corporation and Peter Wall purchased Hastings from Woodbine Entertainment Inc. Great Canadian bought out Wall last fall, and judging by the moves the company made over the winter, it appears this owner is here to stay.

Great Canadian is a publicly traded company worth more than $1.5 billion dollars and its management believes that horse racing is a growth industry. Not just the Thoroughbred side, though. The company recently bought and operates three Standardbred tracks: Fraser Downs, Sandown, and Georgian Downs.

Until last year, Great Canadian had mostly been a casino company. With a substantial investment in horse racing, it needed someone with experience to run the company's new operations. After a lengthy search, it named Chuck Keeling as vice president, racecourse division.

Keeling, 33, had been the general manager at Fraser Downs since 1996. He took over that position from his father, who drowned. While Keeling hasn't had any experience running a Thoroughbred track, he feels the challenges at Hastings are similar to the ones he faced at Fraser Downs.

"It will be an exercise for me in terms of a learning curve," he said. "But from a fundamental sense, there are a lot of parallels between the two types of racing. Secondly, we worked very closely with our Thoroughbred counterparts and I've had the opportunity over the past nine years to get to know them. I've worked with them on issues such as simulcast technology, teletheaters, and the various partnerships we formed."

Keeling is looking forward to working with the tremendous assets Great Canadian brings to the table.

"The luxury that I have as part of the Great Canadian family is being able to use the resources they provide," he said. "I'm not talking financial but more on the human resource side. The infrastructure to be able to pull this off is substantial."

According to Keeling, stability is the most important thing that Great Canadian brings to horse racing in British Columbia.

"For the first time in 10 years there is some stability and certainty on the Thoroughbred side of the business that did not exist because of the management turnover and the ownership turnover in that previous decade," he said. "As far as I see it, ensuring that that stability and certainty is recognized by the key stakeholders in the industry is the biggest step we can take."

The hiring of Keeling seems to be a popular choice among members of the Hastings backstretch. Owner-trainer Tom Longstaff echoed the feelings of many.

"I'm very impressed with Chuck," said Longstaff. "He's sincere and very approachable. He's willing to listen and talk to anyone. I think he'll do a great job in helping move the industry forward."

No definite timetable for slots

It's still not clear when slot machines, which were approved by the Vancouver City Council last July, will actually be introduced at Hastings.

The City of Vancouver owns the property that Hastings is located on and currently is in negotiations with the track on the terms of the lease. If a deal is reached soon, slots could be on site by the fall.

Opportunity to buy older horses

Due to a horse shortage in the province the past two years, live racing was reduced to weekends and holidays only. Beginning June 3, Hastings will add Friday nights to its schedule.

In order to help boost the horse population, Great Canadian recently bought 20 horses in the United States and will hold an auction on Tuesday to sell them to local owners. The majority of the horses are older claiming types that have raced this year. They will be paraded in the paddock before the races this weekend.

Medical documentation, including X-rays, will be available and there are no reserves on any of the horses. Horses bought at the sale have to remain at Hastings for 90 days.

* Ross McLeod, CEO of Great Canadian, could have a horse running in the Kentucky Derby. McLeod owns General John B, who finished second in the Santa Anita Derby. Along with his trainer, Roger Stein, McLeod will decide this weekend whether General John B will run in the Derby.

* Last year's older filly and mare champ, Dancewithavixen, is in foal to Victory Gallop.

* Owner Kim Hart died unexpectedly in February. In the last decade Hart has been among the leading owners at Hastings. He won the 1999 B.C. Derby with Wandering.

At a glance:

RACING SCHEDULE: 83 days; Saturday through Nov. 27. Racing Saturday and Sunday, plus holidays, until June 3, when Fridays are added. Fridays will be dropped Sept. 30.

POST TIME: 1:25 p.m. Pacific weekends and holidays; 6:25 p.m. Fridays.

HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 3, $250,000 British Columbia Derby, Sept. 24; B.C. Cup Day, Aug. 1.

ADMISSIONS: Free; daily box seats (seating for 6), $12 ; Silks, $5

PARKING: $6.50, (includes program and concession rebate coupons)

LOCATION: Close to downtown Vancouver, PNE Grounds at the corner of Hastings and Renfrew.

PHONE: (604) 254-1631, (800) 677-7702

INTERNET: www.hastingsracecourse.com