Last June Vancouver had Stanley Cup fever. This year it's four-footed fever.
Perhaps the most-picturesque track in horseracing will become a live site with a 40-foot-screen to view the Belmont Stakes on June 9. Hastings Racecourse graduate Mario Gutierrez and I'll Have Another will race for the Triple Crown in New York's Belmont Stakes at 3: 30 p.m. Horseracing's hat-trick has not been achieved since 1978.
The 25-year-old Mexican's first Hastings win was aboard Cherokee Freedom on June 10, 2006. That was, coincidentally, the same day as the Belmont.
"[Gutierrez] doesn't get excited in the saddle, he's got an unbelievable sense of timing, he's got real soft hands," said Cherokee Freedom co-owner Rob Fiorvento. "He understands a race, he understands positioning."
Gutierrez won 90 more as a rookie and took consecutive jockey titles in 2007 and 2008 with 134 and 103 wins, respectively. He returned to Hastings May 13 and signed autographs for more than two hours. Not since 1965, when Johnny Longden won his record 6,000th race at Hastings, has the track boasted such a celebrity rider. And just in time.
The future of Hastings, founded in 1889, is in doubt. Great Canadian Gaming Corporation's lease with City of Vancouver ends in November. The company wroteoff $51.2 million in track investments over the last two years. Great Canadian Gaming stated publicly last year that it wouldn't renew the lease if it's required to pay for a parkade or new barns.
City council approved 600 slot machines in 2004 and optimistically forecast $6.5 million in annual royalties. Last year, it received only $1.27 million. Great Canadian Gaming CEO Rod Baker insisted in March that his company is "working as diligently as possible to salvage whatever value we can." Its racetrack revenue peaked at $31.2 million in 2008, but fell last year to $19.2 million. Vice-president Howard Blank declined comment.
A suburban, mile-long track was a dream that came and went in the 1990s. Toronto's Woodbine bought the lease in 2002. After failing to expand off-track betting and get slots, it handed the reins to Great Canadian Gaming and Peter Wall two years later.
David Milburn, president-elect of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association of B.C., said the intimate five-furlong track is uniquely within city limits.
"We've got all we need right here, why can't it work?" Milburn said. "This year it is working."