Is this Saturday's (September 10) card the final card of harness racing ever at Canada's oldest racetrack?
That question looms for the Standardbred industry in New Brunswick with the uncertain future surrounding Fredericton Raceway. Horse Racing New Brunswick issued the following press release in advance of Saturday's card at Fredericton, possibly signaling the end of nearly 130 years of harness racing.
This weekend will mark the end of a shortened season of harness racing at Fredericton Raceway. The big question that remains is whether it is the final card of racing ever in the long and storied history of Canada's Oldest Racetrack. On September 28, 1887 harness racing began in Fredericton at its current location, on site at the Fredericton Exhibition Grounds. In 2009 Horse Racing New Brunswick (HRNB) took over operations after Fredericton Exhibition Limited indicated that due to their dire financial situation they could not continue racing. HRNB was formed as the provincial governing body for the industry. President Kathy McLean hopes this isn't the end.
"Hope is a word we use a lot of in harness racing in New Brunswick these days, although its becoming tough to keep that hope up," she says when asked about whether a long-term lease arrangement will be completed between HRNB and the Fredericton Exhibition Ltd group or FEL. "We have asked and offered to meet to discuss a long term arrangement to provide stability to one of the cornerstones of New Brunswick racing however FEL has refused citing pending litigation".
McLean is referring to a lawsuit HRNB has initiated against FEL for locking HRNB out of its VLT, simulcast and bar businesses at Winners Lounge located adjacent to Fredericton Raceway. On Monday, May 16, 2016, HRNB attempted to pay FEL for the property taxes to utilize the building housing Winners Lounge and the entire racetrack area. The lease arrangement stated the taxes were due Sunday, May 15, 2016 however HRNB had 30 days to be compliant. Property tax payment was refused by FEL's Mike Vokey and at approximately 3:00 a.m. on May 17, 2016 the locks were changed to Winners Lounge by FEL. A few days later, Justice Paulette Garnett granted an injunction allowing HRNB and its employees to return to work at Winners Lounge. McLean added that the amount of damages, revenues lost and legal fees is "north of $85,000," something she says "is tough to lose given the state of the industry."
"We really want our harness members and our stakeholders to know just how hard HRNB has been working to solve this difficult situation. FEL has cited the lawsuit as grounds not to meet to discuss a long-term lease, however HRNB's lawyer contends that these lawsuits shouldn't stop the process. We actually proposed dropping both our lawsuit and their countersuit at the signing of a new long-term lease."
Under the current lease arrangements that are set to expire December 31, 2016, HRNB must meet certain financial criteria. First was payment of the property taxes for 2016, a total of $33,209.61 which have been paid in full. Second were monthly payments to a "capital fund" of $3,272.73. This fund now totals approximately $26,178.36. The designation for this fund was capital improvements to the buildings at Fredericton Raceway but the decisions are ultimately left up to the discretion of FEL.
"The most worrisome part of this mess is our horse people. Come December 31, 2016 will they be evicted? Will they be allowed back to train in the spring? It's a stressful time for HRNB and for members of the NBSBOA," says McLean. "The next troubling part is the pending loss of our VLT business. If there isn't a long-term lease signed very soon, ALC has indicated they will reassign the VLT's from Winners to more stable locations in the Fredericton area. This means the damages portion of our lawsuit skyrockets and lots of jobs lost."
Although she wouldn't speculate on how high the lawsuit number could go if ALC pulls the VLT's from Winners Lounge and HRNB, McLean says she's "hopeful but not optimistic. Yeah, that would sum up how HRNB is feeling at this point." So, when the wings close on the Trius Truck Centre Starting Gate and track announcer Brock McEachern says "away they GO" in the Chippin Memorial, which is the feature and final race on Saturday's card, the horses really could be going away from Fredericton Raceway. For good.
(with files from HRNB)