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Jockeys battle for the lead as they make their way into the first turn at Hastings race track in Vancouver August 24, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Jockeys battle for the lead as they make their way into the first turn at Hastings race track in Vancouver August 24, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Rod Mickleburgh

And they're off and racing ... but where are the crowds? Add to ...

The clang of the starting gate, the thrilling thunder of hooves, the neighing of disgruntled punters. Yes, the storied sounds of the racetrack, as unchanging as Christy Clark’s pre-by-election smile, return Saturday for another season at one of the continent’s most beautiful sporting venues, Hastings Racecourse.

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As always, hope springs eternal on the historic grounds of a track that’s been around, in various forms, since the 19th century. “Everyone has a Derby winner in their barn, at this point,” quipped one sage of the backstretch.

The good feelings are further enhanced by the fairy-tale success of one of the local track’s top riders. Instead of another year propelling thoroughbreds around the tight turns at Hastings, popular Mexican jockey Mario Gutierrez has landed a contending mount in the most prestigious horse race of them all, the Kentucky Derby. Mint Juleps, all round!

But no one is kidding themselves. These are not halcyon days for horse racing. The track long ago lost its status as the only gambling game in town, and competition for the entertainment dollar is ever fiercer. Across North America, the so-called Sport of Kings is struggling to survive.

Hastings, operated by the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, is doing what it can. Weiner Dog Racing (sigh), celebrity guest appearances (Chumlee of Pawn Stars fame showed up last year), popular DJs, a better return for the betting dollar, and higher purses to attract more quality horses have helped boost attendance.

Yet betting revenue, including on-site slots, remains flat. An economic model to ensure horse racing stays at Hastings has so far proven elusive.

The city, which owns the racetrack park, and the province are both doing their part. Cabinet minister Rich Coleman is a great champion of horse racing, while Vancouver officials have taken a conciliatory approach to renegotiating its track lease with GCGC.

“Every day that goes by, there are more and more difficulties in the industry,” said deputy city manager Dave McLellan. “So we are trying to be accommodating, recognizing the reality that’s there.”

In addition to tradition, there are hundreds of jobs at the track. “Horse racing has always been part of the culture there, we think it’s an appropriate facility, and we appreciate having the jobs,” Mr. McLellan pointed out.

Meanwhile, I urge you to the track. With free admission, marvellous horses, a spectacular setting and the chance to come home with more dollars than you had when the day began, it’s one of the best deals in town.

I also offer a race card tip for Saturday from Monty Python: two dollars to win on Nuj Nuj Wink Wink in the 8th.

***

Besides giving a pulpit to pompous, preening, political pundits like me, there’s another reason to love the pending by-election in Chilliwack-Hope. It serves as a reminder of the riding’s celebrated place in the annals of arcane nomenclature.

Who can deny the charm of a constituency named after a freezing slap to the chops and the perpetual emotion of Chicago Cub fans on opening day?

(Of course, it’s not like the old daze when there was both the City of Chilliwack and the Township of Chilliwhack to torment green newspaper reporters unschooled in which ‘h’ went where. Alas, the two merged in 1980, and Chilliwhack is now just one ‘h’ of a memory.)

Meanwhile, rare are those among us able to resist the sonorous delights of place names Popkum, Spuzzum, and Bridal Veil Falls, beloved of honeymooners the world over. To say nothing of that cheerily named stretch of pavement in beautiful downtown Yale, Chinamen’s Road.

Happy voting, Chilliwackian-Hopesters.

****

A final few words about the late Jim Green. I hadn’t thought about the former councillor for a bit, but the other day, as I stared groundward, morosely contemplating the decline of bookstores, there was yet another of his civic legacies – a manhole cover, delightfully decorated with native-styled frogs and tadpoles.

It was a typical Jim Green project: Take something outwardly mundane and throw some art at it, in this case via a contest to spruce up the lowly, ubiquitous entrances to the city’s sewer system with cool designs. It almost cheered me up.

A public gathering to remember Mr. Green and his multitudinous contributions to the city he embraced with unrelenting passion takes place Saturday afternoon at the Orpheum. There will be music. I hope someone plays “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat”.

****

And lastly, thank you, Vancouver Canucks, for taking that all-important first step to ensure there will be no repeat of last year’s Stanley Cup riot. Los Angeles 4, Vancouver 2 – ‘nuff said.

Follow on Twitter: @rodmickleburgh

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