05/03/2002 12:00AM

With sale complete, changes are in the air


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - With the sale of the Pacific Racing Association, operators of Hastings Park, to the Woodbine Entertainment Group, local horsemen are more optimistic about the future of horse racing in the province than they have been for a long time.

David Willmot, CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group, said the use of technology will help Hastings Entertainment, a wholly owned subsidiary of WEG, regain its share of the gambling market.

"One of the things we've had to do in racing is figure out how to change what we do in order to drive the main grease that makes the industry go, and that's wagering," Willmot said. "Fortunately, with technology and technological innovation, we've gone into full-blown worldwide satellite and telephone account wagering, and internet wagering."

A change in post times is being considered, Willmot said, to attract more betting from the large eastern Canada market.

Willmot also explained that the turnaround isn't going to happen overnight, and that slot machines wouldn't be required to move things forward.

"There is an obvious shortage of horses in the province, but we're committed to bringing back ontrack attendance and to get money flowing so breeders have confidence in the future," he said.

One move to help attendance was to offer free admission. "That will be a $400,000 hit, but we are prepared to take that," Willmot said. "And we think we can get it back by increased wagering. We are surrounded by casinos. You can't charge people any more for the privilege to come and bet."

Willmot pointed out that there's a misconception about how much slot machine revenue Woodbine takes in, and that 70 percent of the purse increases there have been due to increased wagering on horse racing.

A planned addition of seven teletheaters in the lower mainland would also help make it easier for customers to wager on horse racing.

"Because we have to work with different city councils, it's hard to say what the time frame for the new facilities will be," said Jim Ormiston, the new chairman of Hastings.

Phil Heard will stay on as president of Hastings. Heard is the person who approached Woodbine with the idea of having it take over the PRA.

"The way the PRA was set up didn't allow [the PRA] to raise capital, and since they were saddled with a $6 million debt it was hard for the industry to move forward," said Heard.

Heard approached both the Magna Corporation and Woodbine but opted for Woodbine because of its commitment to live racing.

"The Stronach group seemed more interested in simulcasting, while Woodbine's main interest was in live racing," he said.

Dixie Jacobson, president of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society, British Columbia division, was delighted with the sale. Jacobson said some of the area's young trainers are more likely to continue racing at Hastings.

Former rider and longtime trainer Dennis Terry summed up what a lot of people on the backstretch were feeling. "It's a good move," he said. "At least now there's a sense of direction. We didn't appear to have any real leader before."

Under the PRA's eight-year tenure, there were six board chairs and four general managers.

Bloodstock agent Dan Kenny has been hired by WEG as a special advisor, and part of his job is to try to persuade former owners and breeders to get back in the business.

"It won't be easy but I've already talked to a few people and they seem interested," Kenny said.

Kenny feels that a strong breeding industry is the key to revitalizing the local product.

"B.C. is geographically isolated from the major breeding and racing centers, and along with a weak Canadian dollar, it's hard for people to bring horses from the U.S. to race here," he said. "A lot of the growth in Ontario is due to their breeding program."