On a recent morning at Hastings Racecourse, Dave Bester was standing on a picnic table, using the perch to get a closer look at a two-year-old colt as it galloped by.
Mr. Bester has more than a passing interest in the horse, a dark bay registered as Urban Achiever but known as Bobby. A racing fan for more than 40 years, Mr. Bester recently took the plunge to become a racehorse owner and Bobby is the first horse in which he's had a stake.
But Mr. Bester didn't have to bet the farm to get there: Along with 199 other people, he joined the Hastings Racing Club, a new venture that allows members to own two racehorses for $250 a year, compared with the $2,500 a month or more it would cost to train, feed and provide for a horse on his own.
The club, launched in the hopes of drawing new fans and potential new owners to a sport – and venue – that has seen better days, provides perks including reserved grandstand seating and accompanied access to the backstretch, where members can rub shoulders with other owners and, of course, their horse.
For Mr. Bester, who was at the track to see Bobby on a training run, the club provides entertainment and a chance to mingle with other neophyte owners who might want to invest in a horse as a smaller group.
"It lets me get my feet wet without costing me an arm and a leg," Mr. Bester said. "There's no risk … you're all in for $250, you can't beat that."
That concept – all of the excitement, with none of the risk – is a promotional gambit by three horse industry associations and Hastings Racecourse management. The groups started planning the club last year and launched it this season. Members' fees go to feeding, training and veterinary care for the horses while the associations chipped in the money to buy two horses, both of which were purchased at United States sales for about $30,000 each.
The hope is that at least some of the club members will enjoy the experience enough to form their own partnerships, pumping new players and money into an industry that needs both.
Hastings Racecourse, which has operated since 1889, has with other horse-racing venues been pinched by changing consumer tastes. The facility is currently owned by Great Canadian Gaming, which in 2014 extended a lease agreement with the City of Vancouver until November, 2016. Races run seven months a year. Last year, Great Canadian (which also owns other racetracks in B.C. and Ontario) reported racetrack revenues of $14.6-million, compared with gaming revenues of $308.4-million.
Along with Bobby, who has yet to run a race, the Hastings Racing Club owns Square Dancer, another two-year-old that was scheduled to arrive from the U.S. this week.
The club is a partnership and members are entitled to their share of winnings, if there are any. Purses at Hastings range from between $18,000 to $50,000 or higher, depending on the track record of the horses involved.
At the end of the season in October, the partnership will be dissolved and any remaining funds returned to members, who will have first rights to buy shares in the club next year.
How many races each horse will run will depend on training results and the horses' health and condition, says Richard Yates, club manager and secretary-treasurer of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association of B.C.
Mr. Yates, whose phone rings every couple of minutes with a call from a club member, writes weekly updates and is the educator, vowing to give club members enough knowledge so that they can venture out on their own.
The trainer is Steve Henson, a wise-cracking veteran willing to parry an endless stream of questions.
"I have been in this business for 40 years and this is the best thing that's happened to racing in here," Mr. Henson says. "These guys come down, they have smiles on their faces and no matter what I tell them, they believe me."
Michael O'Brien, a golf-course manager who lives in Mission, grew up in east Vancouver and has fond memories of evenings spent at the track. He sees the club as a good way to reconnect with the neighbourhood and explore a world to which he otherwise would have little access.
"In my business, golf is a luxury – horse racing is like that," he says. "This makes it more accessible to the regular person."