10/03/2007 11:00PM

Slots are coming, though some are skeptical

EmailVANCOUVER, British Columbia - The announcement by track owner Great Canadian Gaming Corporation that an agreement has been reached to install slots at Hastings was greeted with muted enthusiasm by most of the members of the backstretch community.

Comments from trainer Barb Heads regarding the slots were typical.

"When I see people in there playing the slots, then I'll believe it," said Heads.

It's not surprising the response to the news was so subdued. After all, the City of Vancouver gave Great Canadian permission to install slots in the summer of 2004. Along with the usual bureaucratic delays, a lawsuit filed against the city by a local citizens group to try and stop the slots also slowed down the process. The group, the Hastings Conservancy, lost the suit, but filed an appeal. The appeal is scheduled to be heard in January.

Partly because the judges' ruling was so strong, Great Canadian felt confident in moving ahead with the first phase of the redevelopment of Hastings. Approximately 150 slots will be installed in existing floor space, possibly in the next few weeks. The next phase will see a $40 million refurbishing of the complex, with a total of 600 machines planned. Great Canadian is hoping to complete the second phase by the end of 2008.

Although most of the people on the backstretch weren't completely convinced that the slots were actually going to be up and running soon, trainer Dave Milburn, who is also a lawyer, was confident the slots would be installed in a timely fashion.

"The B.C. Supreme Court confirmed the city's right to allow slots at Hastings," said Milburn. "It was a lengthy and well-reasoned decision, and I'm very confident we'll see the slots installed."

Milburn also pointed out that the industry has been waiting for the slots for more than three years.

"Actually, the provincial government gave racetracks the right to install slots in 1997," he said. "It's been a long time coming and I'm very optimistic about the future of horse racing in British Columbia."

Milburn, who is on the board of the local Horsemen's Benevolent Protective Association, expects a purse increase to take place next year. He's hopeful the 20 percent cut that was enacted at the end of last year will be made up.

"It's not just the added slot revenue that we're looking at," said Milburn. "We've been underpaying purses all season and we've just about made up the deficit the purse account had last year."

There won't be a dramatic purse increase right away. The horsemen at Hastings owe approximately $7 million to the Standardbred industry. When Fraser Downs, a local Standardbred track, was awarded slots in 2004, part of the slots revenue was used to prop up the purses at Hastings. That money has to be paid back and negotiations are underway to come up with a payback plan.

Trainer Harold Barroby, another HBPA board member, said he thinks slots revenue will eventually have a dramatic impact on the industry.

"We have a very viable industry here," he said. "Our betting is so far ahead of Alberta and Manitoba and we're the only ones in Canada that have survived with just betting on horse racing. With the slots coming in I think that in about three of four years this place will be thriving again."

Dixie Jacobson, an eternal optimist who is also the president of the local breeders association, the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society, was beaming after hearing the news.

"I'm very excited about this," said Jacobson. "It's really going to move the industry forward. It also comes at a good time because a lot of our breeders will be looking at next year's breeding season right now."

Management at Hastings is excited about moving forward with the installation of the slots.

"This is the dawning of a new and exciting area for the Thoroughbred industry in British Columbia," said Michael Mackey, general manager at Hastings. "Horse ownership and breeding will improve from this day forward and it will be a case of onward and upward."

If the projections of roughly $6 million in added purse money come to fruition when all the machines are installed, the purses at Hastings should increase by about 60 percent when all the dust clears.

Star Prospector ineligible for Futurity

The complexion of the $100,000 Jack Diamond Futurity changed when it was discovered that Star Prospector isn't eligible to the race. When the nominations were first listed, he was on the list. After the racing office double-checked the original mare-in-foal nominations, it was discovered that Star Prospector's mare was never nominated.

Star Prospector has won the last three stakes for 2-year-olds at Hastings. He would have been a strong favorite if he were eligible to the Futurity, which will be run Monday.

Terry Jordan, who trains Star Prospector, appeared to take the news in stride.

"What are you going to do?," he said. "They showed me the original nominations and there's not much we can do about it. I was surprised because he was sold in last year's sale and the catalog said he was eligible to the race."

Jordan added that he would instead point Star Prospector to the $100,000 Ascot Graduation on Oct. 28.

Snow's suspension begins

Trainer Mel Snow, who is the president of the local HBPA, will begin a 30-day suspension this Monday. A horse he trains, Answer the Call, tested positive for Butazolidin after finishing second in a race June 3.

Snow was originally suspended in June but he received a stay after he appealed the ruling. Along with the suspension, Snow has to pay fines totaling $6,750. It was the third time in the past four years that Snow has had a positive test for the same drug.