When Sandra Roberts first started working at Fraser Downs 15 years ago, the harness racing community had an entirely different atmosphere.
“It used to be a very social place,” the longtime Cloverdale resident recalls.
“Now you’re doing the work yourself and you don’t really have the social time. And there’s so little money to be made because of the (fewer) race days, that it’s sort of like they’re turning us against each other,” says the Standardbred owner and trainer.
“Instead of being a big family, we’ve become more competitive against each other.”
Races used to take place almost year-round between the tracks in Surrey and on Vancouver Island. Horsemen could always pay all their bills – although no one was getting rich.
Fraser Downs hosted 99 race days in 2006, according to financial reports from the Great Canadian Gaming Corp., which operates the casino and racetrack.
The number fell to 74 by 2011.
And so far, just 26 race days have been scheduled for 2014.
“It’s impossible to make a living if we’ve only got four or three months of racing,” Roberts told The Reporter, adding the track used to be full of young people tending to the horses and cleaning the stables.
Now the horsemen can no longer afford to hire any help.
“I won’t survive (another year),” she said.
Chuck Keeling, Great Canadian executive director of stakeholder relations, said although the racing schedule only stretches until April, it’s still possible more races could be added later on this year.
He wouldn’t comment on the likelihood of that happening, but said he’s hopeful the number of 2014 race days will be comparable to those of the last few years.
Racetrack revenues at Fraser Downs and Hastings declined 60 per cent in the first nine months of 2013 ($7.9 million) compared to the same period in 2008 ($19.6 million), according to Great Canadian financial reports.
“This decrease is primarily due to the ongoing industry-wide decline in horse race wagering,” one report said.
The financial statements did not separate revenue between Fraser Downs and Hastings racetracks.
Keeling said these figures reflect the core challenges plaguing an industry that’s been in decline for decades.
But he added the B.C. Horse Racing Industry Management committee – which includes representatives from Great Canadian Gaming, Harness Racing B.C. and the thoroughbred sector – is working on a long-term sustainability plan to provide the industry with more certainty going forward.
“Could this be a sunset industry? (It’s) possible, but there’s precedent – like poker – for it not to be,” Keeling said.
He pointed out interest in the well-known card game was waning dramatically a few decades back. But poker had a resurgence about 10 or 15 years ago as TV shows and Internet gambling made the game popular once again.
Keeling said he hopes the horse-racing industry will find a similar resurgence, but it’s still in the hands of the B.C. Horse Racing Industry Management committee.