A race for survival
*NOTE — The story below says the Aug. 27 horse races in Kamloops are a go. That race date was recently cancelled.
The River City’s horse-racing scene is in dire straits.
“There’s not enough horses to run and there’s not enough purse money to pay the purses for the races,” said Dewayne Remmie, president of the Kamloops Exhibition Association (KXA).
On Aug. 27, Sagebrush Downs will host the only race scheduled this year in Kamloops (an April 9 race day was cancelled due to a lack of horse entries).
There is enough purse money available to race again at Sagebrush on Aug. 28, but there might not be enough horses to run two days in a row, Remmie said.
The summer of 2009 saw eight race days at Sagebrush; the summer of 2010 saw four.
Simple math tells a sad story: Every year, for the past three years, the number of race days in Kamloops has been cut in half.
In 2009, the B.C. Horse Racing Industry Management Committee, which was established by the provincial government to help revitalize and restore financial strength to the province’s horse-racing industry, decided to reduce the Interior Horse Racing Association’s (IHRA) annual grant from about $200,000 to about $100,000.
That money is split three ways between the KXA and exhibition associations in Vernon and Princeton.
This year’s IHRA purse stash has grown to about $126,000, thanks to outside sponsorship money, which allows for two race days in each member city.
Remmie said the KXA would like to see horse racing rebound in Kamloops, but there are no guarantees Sagebrush will hold any races in 2012.
“I’d like to see it keep going, but we’re just going to have to play it by ear for now,” he said.
Aside from a lack of money, which results from the overall poor health of horse racing in B.C., assigning blame for the sport’s decline in Kamloops is no easy task.
Doug Peterson, a longtime member of the KXA’s horse-racing committee, said B.C. Lottery Corporation’s (BCLC) decision not to allow slot machines at Sagebrush has hurt attendance at races.
Given that a percentage of the money gamblers spend on off-track betting on race days eventually funnels back into the IHRA’s purse fund, the KXA would like to see as many bettors at the track as possible.
Peterson said patrons who like to gamble are going elsewhere — Chances and Lake City Casino, for example — to do their wagering.
“A lot of tracks have put slot machines in to help reverse the trend but, for whatever reason, that isn’t allowed to happen at Sagebrush,” Peterson said.
“I guess it’s all political.”
KTW asked BCLC why slot machines are a no-go at Sagebrush.
Kamloops’ gaming needs are currently being met with the facilities at the casino and Chances, a company representative replied.
Luigi Sale, the former president of the KXA, said a change in culture is one reason for horse racing’s diminishing popularity.
“The people now just don’t really care about horse races,” he said.
Determining why the sport is struggling to survive in the Tournament Capital might not be simple, but it’s easy to see how local business has been affected by horse racing’s recent downfall.
Kamloops Large Animal Veterinary Clinic employee Jennifer Jackson said more race days means more work for her and the clinic’s staff.
“We would treat the race horses that need to be treated, before and after the races, and one of us would work [at the track on race days],” she said.
“We’re missing all of that.”
Denise Hermansen, owner of Dee’s Country Corner Café at 702 Mount Paul Way, said her business benefits when the track is bustling.
“It definitely affects us,” she said.
“We get them here in the morning throughout the season.
“We miss all those race-track guys. That’s what we’re into over here.
“We like the cowboys.”
Winners Café is the KXA’s on-site restaurant. Cue the rocket science — more race days means more money for that establishment.
Purity Feed and the Horse Barn see an influx of customers when the races are in town.
John McCurrach, owner of Purity Feed, said his business would suffer if the track closed down for good because horses (which require products sold at Purity) train at Sagebrush from February to April.
“If the track disappeared, we’d notice it, for sure,” he said.
Leo and Norma Shaw have been raising and racing horses in Kamloops for about 20 years.
“When we first got into it, you couldn’t even get stalls here in Kamloops [at Sagebrush], it was that busy,” Norma said.
“There’s so much spinoff from the racing on other businesses, too.”
The Shaws, who race horses in Vancouver and Edmonton, have also been affected by the dwindling number of race days in the Interior.
“Quite often we will bring in some of our horses that aren’t quite making it on the other tracks,” Norma said.
“We bring them in and do some racing here in Kamloops, Princeton and Vernon.”
Ron and Rae Fawcett own and operate Tod Mountain Thoroughbreds, a horse-breeding facility in Heffley Creek.
While a lack of race days does not directly affect their business, they do run into horse owners, trainers and potential jockeys who used the races at Sagebrush as a launching pad.
“It was a great area to display your horses and maybe have a few races for them before they go to Vancouver to race or wherever else,” Rae said.
“And, it was a place for local people who want to try out as a jockey.”
Shoers, groomers, stall-cleaners, hay suppliers, hotel and motel owners . . . the list of people adversely affected by the woeful state of horse racing in Kamloops goes on.
Many sources told KTW they can remember the glory days in the 1980s and early 1990s when Sagebrush was a hub of action on race days.
Those days are not quite gone yet — Aug. 27 will no doubt be a special day at the track — but they sure don’t happen as often as they used to.
“It breaks my heart,” Peterson said.
“You bet it does.”