11/28/2003 12:00AM

Track looking to legislation for help


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - It has been 18 months since the Woodbine Entertainment Group bought out the Pacific Racing Association and took over horse racing in British Columbia under a subsidiary, Hastings Entertainment Inc. At the time of the purchase there was a great deal of optimism within the local industry that the new management group could turn things around in this neck of the woods.

After all, the Woodbine group had plenty of money to invest in the future, and it also had a proven track record operating one of the largest racing operations in North America.

It also had a plan that it has not been able to implement, and it was a frustrated Phil Heard, president of Hastings Entertainment, who sat down recently to talk about the state of the industry.

While slot machines have had a lot to do with the turnaround of horse racing in Ontario, it was the addition of teletheater sites around the Toronto area that started the ball rolling.

When Woodbine signed the agreement with the provincial government to take over the Pacific Racing Association, said Heard, "the government clearly understood that the business plan relied on seven new teletheater sites to get the distribution going. We feel there's a lot of lapsed bettors out there, and that we can bring them back."

According to Heard, the provincial government agreed with that strategy and actually wrote legislation that would allow for the opening of new sites. The legislation, however, contained regulations that gave a great deal of control to local municipalities, making it difficult actually to open a new site.

"The interpretation of these regulations by the municipalities is that a teletheater and a casino are basically on the same footing," said Heard. "That's why we haven't been able to get one opened. We've been turned down by seven municipalities."

Hastings has now asked the solicitor general, Rich Coleman, if the government could change regulations and put teletheaters in the same category as lottery sales.

"It's legal to make bets over the phone or over the Internet, so we think it's ridiculous that teletheaters are treated the same way as a casino," said Heard.

Heard said that Coleman "agreed with us, but so far nothing has happened."

Heard's big concern is that if Hastings can't increase purses soon, more horses will leave the province, and that will make it very difficult to have the kind of racing that was envisioned when Woodbine took over.

"Purses are what drives the industry," he said. "I'm afraid to tell the horsemen that there won't be a purse increase. The light at the end of the tunnel is getting dimmer and dimmer, and they aren't going to continue to race here on hope alone."

The Vancouver City Council will decide on Tuesday whether to move the issue of having slot machines at Hastings to public hearings. If it does, and it appears there is a good chance it will, the hearings will take place in the middle of January.

"We need one or the other," said Heard in reference to slot machines and teletheaters. "If we get both, I think that racing could really take off here. There's been horse racing in Vancouver for over a hundred years, and if we can raise purses I know there are a lot of people who would be interested in running their horses here."

It is pretty clear from what has transpired at Hastings this year that if a good card of racing is offered, the fans will come out. While the total betting on the live handle will be slightly down for the year, the average per race is up significantly. Going into the final weekend the total ontrack live handle was down by just 1 percent but there have been 96 fewer races run. Simulcast wagering is up by roughly 4 percent and the total handle for the year, from all sources, is up by 2.6 percent.

"There are a lot of real positive trends happening here," said Heard. "If we can just get the support from the government so that we can raise purses, there's no telling how far we can go."