Former Langley resident Nigel Holmes, secretary treasurer of Harness Racing BC (HRBC) and long-time Standardbred owner, says the beleaguered industry is slowly winning the race to survive, despite the odds.
HRBC represents the harness racing industry, which employs around 6,000 people in B.C.
In recent years, the industry has had to cope with a dwindling number of race days at Fraser Downs, the exodus of breeders leaving B.C. for greener pastures, and public and government indifference to the sport, and to the fate of the people and horses who depend upon it.
The introduction of slot machines at the track, hyped as a boon for the racing industry, seemed to herald its death-knell instead when gaming revenues failed to materialize and the racing season grew shorter.
“For a while, our industry had a defeatist attitude. Now there is reason for cautious optimism in a business that has been slapped around a lot,” said Holmes.
Owners, breeders, drivers and trainers are working together modernize an industry resistant to change and becoming more politically active.
HRBC’s reorganization started at the top, with the appointment of former Surrey mayor Doug McCallum as CEO two years ago.
“Doug is politically astute, forceful, and is an excellent media spokesman for us,” said Holmes.
The new voice of an old industry has been heard in Victoria. The political tides seem to be turning in favour of harness racing. Holmes says the provincial government is showing support for what it sees as a B.C.-based, agricultural business in the form of financial incentives the industry needs to survive.
In addition to funding, the provincial government is now working with stakeholders in the racing industry to shape its future and ensure its survival.
“We do believe the current provincial government is willing to work for our industry. It’s good for both breeds.”
Holmes termed the recent announcement by the provincial government of the creation of a management committee to oversee racing in BC as a “great step forward.” The committee is made up of respresentatives from government, the gaming industry, and both the Thoroughbred and Standardred racing industries.
One of the tasks of the new provincial racing committee is to come up with a long-term strategy for the racing industry and to provide it with much-needed stability.
According to Holmes, the assurance of government incentives and the commitment to a generous number of race days each year at the Fraser Downs track will encourage new blood and new money in harness racing.
There have also been some fundamental changes in the way the harness racing industry does business.
The large breeding farms that used to dot the landscape in Langley are largely gone, replaced by what Holmes terms backyard breeders with three or four horses.
The notable trend in the breeding sector is the emergence of large satellite farms in the interior, where operating costs are considerably less than in the Lower Mainland.
“We’re seeing people like (former Aldergrove resident) Diana Ball move to the Interior and growing their (breeding) business there. Kelly McMillan has 80 acres with 14 to 15 brood mares on Highway 33. As an owner, it costs me $13 or $14 a day to keep a horse there, as opposed to $18 to $20 down here,” said Holmes.
Another industry trend is the increasing number of trainer/drivers who are part owners of race horses. The result is more financial incentive for the trainers, and a division of risk between multiple owners.
“I used to own quite a few horses by myself. But when you have invested $20,000 in a horse and it goes lame the hit is too hard.”
While things are looking up for the racing industry in B.C., the harness racing industry in Ontario is now staring death in the face.
The provincial government in Ontario has announced it pulling the plug on slot machines at all racetracks effective next March. Holmes estimates that “stroke of a pen” will cost the Ontario industry $345 million a year, and will likely result in the closure of 10 or 12 of the 17 tracks in that province, and the loss of thousands of jobs, many in rural areas
The racing industries in B.C. and Ontario, which are economically entwined, face the same underlying problem.
“Governments have a tremendous amount of power over some industries. They can pull the plug on an industry with the stroke of a pen. Governments are put in power by urban voters, and sometimes rural areas pay the price for their decisions.”