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"American Pharoah" by Maryland GovPics - 2015 Preakness Stakes. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:American_Pharoah.jpg#/media/File:American_Pharoah.jpg

American Pharoah by Maryland GovPics – 2015 Preakness Stakes.

On June 7, Wendy and I were guests at Hastings Park and privileged to decorate the winner of the $50,000 Sir Winston Churchill Stakes. It was a wonderful afternoon and thanks to Greg Douglas, my old friend and our host, we felt very welcome indeed.

My involvement with horse-racing goes back to when I was very young indeed. For some reason, in my very early teens, I took an interest in the sport and started to follow it assiduously. I cut out all of the form charts and race results and religiously listened to Jack Short’s racing highlights on CJOR every evening after the races.

The first Kentucky Derby I remember listening to was in 1945 won by Hoop Jr. I read everything I could including histories of Man-O-War, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway and other great heroes. I knew about the great jockeys going back to Earl Sande, “Never a handy guy like Sande, bootin’ them babies in!” Damon Runyon).

In those days there were three tracks in the Vancouver area, Lansdowne and Brighouse in Richmond, and Hastings Park at the exhibition in Vancouver. The racing days were allotted amongst the tracks by the government with the final lot going to Sandown in Victoria.

Lansdowne and Brighouse were both one-mile tracks with clay loam surfaces and attracted some very good horses. The man who dominated the scene was Major Austin C. Taylor and his Indian Broom came third in the 1936 Kentucky Derby.

He also owned Special Agent which won the 1937 San Pasqual Handicap, at Santa Anita Park, equaling the track record; Minulus which won the 1938 Santa Anita Oaks; Whichcee, whose wins included the 1937 San Francisco Handicap, the San Antonio Handicap, plus the inaugural running of the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park Racetrack in 1938 and Colonel Mack which in 1956 won the Los Angeles Handicap and the Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar Racetrack. In 1936, his horses won every handicap of importance at the Tanforan Racetrack meeting including Indian Broom who set a world record of 1:47 3/5 for a mile and an eighth on dirt.

These horses were all before my time but known to me because Mr. Taylor was so well-known – his son Austin went to St. George’s School the same time I did – and Austin Sr. was a good friend of my uncle, Dr. Bill Hatfield with whom he shared a love of breeding Labrador Retrievers, a breed I grew up loving and owning.

I recall many horses running at Lansdowne in the 40’s, especially those which did very well racing at Santa Anita and Golden Gate. The one that comes quickly to mind was my favorite, Goldstreworth, by Papworth out of Gold Streak II, which breeding somehow sticks in my mind, always full of utterly useless information.

As time went on, many fine horses came along such as Cum Laude, Mafosta, Ab Jr., and George Royal.

I remember my first day actually at the races – it was at Hastings Park, I was 14, and won the quinella in the last race and it paid the princely sum of $7.80. It was Jest Once to Tuxedo Eddy. I remember even better winning a quinella in partnership with my friend Bill Stuart, this would have been in the late 40s, for $78.60 which we split. In those days that meant we were rich and I remember that I took my girlfriend Heather for a special dinner at the Aristocratic Restaurant at 41st and Granville. The race was won by Glenboro, the second horse was Meta M. If only I had been able to remember important facts as I can recall horse race statistics I’m sure I would be a wealthy man.

Growing up, then getting into Law, marriage and children kept me away from the races pretty much until I was in government in the 1970’s when a free pass was a good incentive and I started to go almost every racing day.

By that time Lansdowne had been closed for many years and what they called “Ex Park”, formerly Hastings Park, now the latter again, was now the only game in town.

I soon got back into the swing of things and for several years enjoyed going to the races almost every race day.

The one ambition of all racing fans, owners, jockeys etc. was to have a one mile track again, if only because owners hesitated to run good horses on 5/8 mile tracks as the turns are so tight. In the late 80’s it became quite a passion to talk about a new one mile track and the Attorney General, Brian Smith, himself a racing fan, talked about “Santa Anita North.” If not cash, at least expectations were raised.

Unfortunately, those of us who knew anything about the subject knew that this was pie in the sky. In order to make a one mile track work, they would have to get about 25,000 patrons a day. There was nowhere in the greater Vancouver area near any reasonable transportation where a one mile track would fit. Exhibition Park was simply too small even if they could get part of the park itself. Not only did there have to be a park, of course, there had to be transportation to it.

What was obvious is that no one was prepared to put any money into this exciting concept that everyone thought was so great. Some of the wealthy owners that came to mind, the late Herb Doman, R.J. Bennett and others were very supportive but their hands were firmly on their wallet.

Then the mantra became that the government should pay for this new track. That wasn’t really very popular although one could argue since BC Place Stadium is a government operation, why not a race track? Still the government made it clear that this just wasn’t on.

What about getting a developer to build a housing development around a racetrack and thus making a lot of money for himself while providing the track everybody wanted?

There were problems with that, not the least of which was that the only land big enough was in The Agricultural Land Reserve as well as being nowhere near public transportation. Moreover the history of such developments was that the track went broke and was made into more houses that made even more money for the developer, destroyed farm land and left everyone else high and dry – now without any racetrack.

The bottom line for me was simply the basic problem that no one had a piece of appropriate land in mind and whatever land was thought of had no transportation to it. I did a number of editorials on this and became extremely unpopular with many of the owners who imagined themselves in air-conditioned boxes in a brand-new track and here was Rafe Mair fucking that all up. It just didn’t seem to occur to them that somebody had to find an appropriate spot, get transportation to that spot, find the money to buy the land and build the race track, and then coax 25,000 people five nights a week to that track in order to break even. I pointed out that the flock of interested investors was nil and that the idea simply could not wash at this point.

Suddenly I was no longer as welcome in the Table Terrace at my usual table and backs were being turned on me. Needless to say this took the fun out of going to the races plus the fact it thoroughly pissed me off since I supported a one mile track but faced the realities also being faced, I might add, by owners with their hands tight on their wallets.

Horse racing generally began to decline and needed slot machines and casinos as part of their operation and off track betting. The number of horses available diminished substantially. It was a Catch-22 in that Hastings Park could not attract good horses until it built a one mile track and it couldn’t do that until people came out and supported racing which they wouldn’t do to see a bunch of plugs run.

I don’t believe that racing is finished by a long shot. American Pharaoh winning the Triple Crown has hugely rejuvenated the sport in many ways. One only need look at the reaction around the world to know that there are a hell of a lot of racing fans looking for something to cheer for.

This leaves Hastings Park and especially the owners in the position of having to accept the status quo, stumble along on two days a week instead of five, relying upon slot machines and off-track betting and, like Mr. Micawber, hoping something turns up or grasp the nettle and start to work again on getting that mile track.

One of the main problems with the earlier effort was that there was really no preparation. It had no leadership, no well respected spokesperson. There was a hell of a lot of desire, but no strategy, no viable motivated organization.

I believe that if the “stakeholders” (I hate that expression) get together, form the appropriate committees, work at finding available land near transportation, raise some capital that there’s a role for some financing from public sources, both municipal and provincial governments with some help from the Feds. Why not? A first class racetrack is a great tourist draw especially when you erase that Catch-22 and have good horses running for good purses.

The trick this time will be to avoid putting the cart before the horse. It will take time and patience and public support. In the latter regard there is a deep seated love of horse racing in this area going back to the 19th century. I believe that love is there to be exploited provided the suitors don’t think they can get it with a box of yesterday’s chocolates.

As I finish, I must confess that I am only looking at this as a journalist with a long-standing love of horse racing. I have no money to invest which makes talk pretty cheap.

What I do say is the what I saw last Sunday at Hastings Park clearly demonstrated that the current track is very user-friendly and, within the limitations existing, does a damn good job. This is important because it’s critical to any proposed new track that there be experienced people available to run it. They are obviously there.

Maybe it won’t happen. Maybe older folks like me will look back at Lansdowne with tears welling in their eyes. Maybe there aren’t enough people that really care.

I don’t believe that. The tremendous excitement about a horse in far-away New York winning three horse races that 99% of us have never seen, tells me that there is still a deep-seated horse racing tradition right around the world including Vancouver waiting to be exploited by people who are patient and know what they’re doing. After all, 10,000 people came to Hastings Park to watch and bet on the Belmont when they could have watched at home if that’s all they wanted to do.

As a writer said, American Pharoah is no Secretariat. However, who knows, he may have a greater impact than Secretariat by inspiring people not just to save the sport, but expand it. And getting the public involved is critical.

If they hurry, maybe I’ll yet see the likes of Goldstreworth, Mafosta and George Royal run and win again.

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