07/09/2002 11:00PM

Windfall enables purse hike

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Purses at Hastings Park are expected to jump by roughly 10 percent in the near future. One reason for the increase is that business has been good since the Woodbine Entertainment Group took over the track on May 1. The per-race average handle on live racing has increased by around 20 percent, and while attendance figures haven't been kept since free admission was introduced, it is clear that many more people are attending the races and the mood at the track is buoyant.

Another reason for the increase is more than $2 million in "found money."

Last year, the provincial government formed a new administrative entity, the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch, which administers all of the gaming in the province, excluding lotteries. This meant the end of the B.C. Racing Commission, and when a full audit was done to wrap up the activities of the commission, it was discovered that slightly more than $2 million dollars had accrued in a fund that was supposed to go back to the racing industry. The money, which came from the provincial government's seven percent part tax on the mutuel handle, was earmarked for purse supplements, breeder's awards, and possible improvements to the Hastings Park facility.

Most of the $2 million-plus will go towards purses over the next couple of years. The Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society, B.C. Division (the breeders), are working out the details of how much each group will get, and in the past, the Breeder's received roughly 12-13 percent.

Phil Heard, president of Hastings Entertainment, wants to feather the money into the purses.

"We don't want to put it in all at once," he said. "We're going through the process of identifying where the handle is going, which is up, and what kind of impact the Teletheatres will have when they get up and running. The money was originally supposed to be used to help supplement purses if the industry was in trouble, but now we'll use it to help us move forward."

Heard also points out that beginning next year all of the money previously taken out by the government will now go directly to the industry.

There's not much doubt that the horse racing industry in B.C. is being revitalized. With money to spend, the Hastings Entertainment Group, has turned Hastings Park into a construction zone. The new fence between the tarmac and the track is a big improvement and the almost completed "Discovery Paddock" will certainly add to the ambiance. Everywhere you look, it seems that something is receiving a fresh coat of paint, but most importantly the mood on the backstretch has never been more positive.

"There's great enthusiasm back there," said HBPA President Mel Snow. "Even people that were very negative about the Woodbine group taking over have come around and can see a bright future."

Much of the increase in handle has come from off-track sources, with the biggest push coming from telephone account wagering. The numbers should continue to trend upward as The Score, a national cable channel, has started airing the Hastings Park card from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday's. There were technical difficulties on last week's program, the first one, but they've been ironed out and viewers should get a clear signal this weekend.

Another positive sign is the increase of field size. Last year, the average field size was around seven starters a race; this year, the average has risen to eight. In fact, on the holiday weekend when Hastings ran three days in a row, the average was 8.4 horses a race.