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Betting on a new future in horse-racing

By Erica Bulman, 24 Hours Vancouver

First race of the the day at Hasting Racecourse.   (CARMINE MARINELLI, QMI AGENCY)

First race of the the day at Hasting Racecourse. (CARMINE MARINELLI, QMI AGENCY)

Raj Mutti has attended several funerals in recent years, bidding farewell to the old-timers who called home the Hastings Racecourse where he grew up and now manages.

He's determined the next goodbye service he attends won't be for the track itself, a pastime that seemingly enters every season opener on life support.

"I go pay my respects because they're people who frequent your place of work 300-plus days of the year," Mutti, 29, told QMI, referring to services of the veteran betters who've passed on. "They come in for coffee, to BS and catch up."

If you look around, you can still see them: craggy-faced men in flat caps and sport jackets, scrutinizing the horseflesh, reading the tote board, and calculating the payouts.

But when Hastings Racecourse's 71-day season opened last weekend, the stands were sparsely filled and old-timers a minority.

"When the track opened in 1889, horse racing was the only legal betting activity in North America," Mutti said. "Now, there are so many different options. We have teletheatres all over the Lower Mainland showing our races and other racetracks. There are lotteries, casinos and Internet gambling. Technology has changed horse racing."

The track's fought to reverse the downward trend. In 2010, its racing revenue fell 19 per cent. Adding to the insecurity, the track's lease expires in 2012 and the city-owned operator, Great Canadian Gaming, is feverishly working out a 15-year extension.

"It's a landmark in the city, it's been here so many years," Mutti said. "Things like that always find a way to work themselves out."

Mutti, who as a child would watch the family horses race at Hastings, began working at the track at 15, as a busboy in Silks restaurant. He later studied racetrack management. At the operation's helm since 2007, it's now his job to make the track profitable.

The strategy: make race day an event with DJs, quality food, beverage and service, and providing entertainment between races.

"I wouldn't say we're struggling. I think we're growing the business back and making it that fun destination where people want to come," Mutti said. "You still see the old-timers but it's become a cool place for that 19-40 crowd. It's becoming retro and back in style."

Tom MacDonald is a track veteran. At the bugle call, he sits a little straighter. His eyes gleam. He speaks a little faster.

MacDonald's mother dragged him to the track at a tender age and he was hooked.

"She was a diehard gambler. She's the one who introduced me to the races," said the 56-year-old, who's worked as a hot walker, groom, valet, trainer, filmed races and owned a number of horses. "It gets in your blood. It's the thrill of the win, not so much the money. It inflates your ego a little bit to able to succeed at something."

The idea the track might be in jeopardy worries MacDonald.

"Back in the day, there were seas of spectators," he said. "With Father Time, we've lost a lot of the old timers, characters.

"I don't know what half the people would do without this race track."