04/22/2010 12:00AM

Warm winter means horses are ready


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The director of racing, Paul Ryneveld, was all smiles after closing entries for the first two days at Hastings on Wednesday. Ryneveld was planning on running eight races on each day. When an abundance of horses were entered, however, he added an extra race both days. A total of 153 horses made the overnight for the weekend and the shortest field is seven horses. That is a welcome relief to handicappers who have been fed a steady stream of short fields on the West Coast.

"I wasn't surprised by the strong opening," said Ryneveld. "We have had great weather, strong work tabs, and the horsemen have been telling me they are ready to go."

Anyone watching the 2010 Winter Olympics would be aware of the unseasonably warm weather that Vancouver had in February. The Olympic Committee may have had a hard time getting the alpine events in, especially at Cypress Mountain which is located just outside of Vancouver, but it was perfect weather for getting horses ready to run.

"We didn't miss one day of training," said Ryneveld. "Compare that to last year when the track was frozen for more than a week. We couldn't open it until it thawed in the afternoon, and a lot of trainers just gave their horses the day off."

Ryneveld also thinks the types of horses stabled at Hastings has a lot to do with the strong opening.

"Because we lost a few stalls over the winter we actually have fewer horses on the grounds than we did last year," he said. "But we ran a lot of 2-year-old races in 2009, and that gives us a lot of horses with racing experience. It also looks like a lot of babies are ready to run, and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a race fill for them next weekend."

Looking for football spillover

The general manager of Hastings, Raj Mutti, is hoping that decent field sizes plus a renewed focus on marketing will translate into an increase in the handle this year. Hastings was down roughly 17 percent in 2009.

"We are spending a bit more and being more efficient with our marketing dollars," said Mutti. "One of the things we're doing is running ads on TV for the first time in a long time."

The British Columbia Lions, the local Canadian Football League team, will be playing their games at a makeshift stadium on the Pacific National Exhibition grounds while renovations are being made to their home stadium. Mutti views the 27,000 football fans expected on the site as potential customers.

"We have an excellent partnership deal with the Lions," said Mutti. "As well as having promotions with their season ticket-holders, we are going to be the official tailgate party of the B.C. Lions. Hopefully, we'll get a lot of their fans coming to Hastings before and after they go to the games. Their demographics are a perfect match for us."

Provincial panel to manage funds

Soon after Hastings completed its 2009 meet, a committee was formed by the government of British Columbia that will have a big impact on the future of horse racing in the province.

The B.C. Horse Racing Industry Management Committee was given the mandate to help revitalize and restore financial strength to the province's horse racing industry.

The committee will manage revenue generated from horse racing, as well as slot revenue at Hastings and Fraser Downs, the local Standardbred track. Agreements that were in place between the Thoroughbred and Standardbred horsemen regarding the division of those revenues no longer exist. The committee will now be the ones deciding who gets what.

Glen Todd, the leading owner at Hastings for the past few years, is one of the six members of the committee. Bill Boden, the largest standardbred owner in British Columbia, is also on the committee.

"We don't have a formula on how to split the money," said Todd. "That is one of the things we are working on. For now we are just trying to be fair in the way we allocate the money."

One of the first moves by the committee that greatly benefits the Thoroughbred sector is the elimination of the $6 million the horsemen owed to the Standardbred sector. This was money used to prop up purses while Hastings awaited approval for slots.

Future plans for the committee include developing and managing marketing strategies for the industry, plus evaluating and improving the effectiveness of existing business activities.

It is too early to tell how the new arrangement will ultimately work out. Derek Sturko, the chair of the committee, pointed out one of the strengths of the new structure.

"The committee has moved the industry to a much simpler and more understandable model," said Sturko. "Under that model, all revenue available for use by the industry is managed through a single account and a single payment and accounting process."