Growing Owners - by Eric Mitchell

Finding new owners continues to be one of the many challenges facing Thoroughbred racing. Syndications and partnerships have created more affordable options for many who have later formed racing stables of their own, and yet access to the sport still seems daunting.

Hastings Racecourse near Vancouver, British Columbia, is a shining example of how some racetracks are getting more involved in removing the barriers to ownership for their customers.

Since 2014 Hastings has been focused on attracting more horses to the racetrack through programs such as “Ship and Win,” which offers a bonus to runners that had made their previous starts at another racetrack.

“We got horses, but what we weren’t having success with was bringing in new owners,” said Darren MacDonald, general manager of Hastings. “We wanted a way to bring in people at a low-cost point.”

Borrowing from a concept used by Emerald Downs in Washington state, Hastings used funds from its marketing budget to form the Hastings Racing Club. The club offered 200 shares in two racehorses for $250 apiece.

Shareholders didn’t have to spend another dollar. The horses are actually owned by the British Columbia Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of British Columbia and then leased to the club. In less than two months all 200 shares had been sold, and the track has 196 names on a waiting list. MacDonald said 65-70% of the shareholders had not had any previous involvement in racing.

“We were really surprised,” MacDonald said. “We were hoping to get 100 people the first year. It turned out the hardest part was getting the horses. We had 80 people signed up before we had a horse.”

The stars also aligned when it came to finding runners for the club. One of the horses acquired was a 5-year-old Circular Quay gelding and allowance winner named Square Dancer. Conditioned by trainer Steve Henson, Square Dancer blossomed into a grade III-placed stakes winner this year. He won three of four starts for the club, including the $100,000 Redekop Classic Handicap, the $50,000 S.W. Randall Plate Handicap, and was second in the BC Premier’s Handicap (Can-III). He is also a candidate for Open Horse of the Year. Minus expenses, he’ll net each club member close to $500.

Winner's circle overflow for Square Dancer

“Obviously having Square Dancer winning helped make this successful,” said Richard Yates, manager of the racing club. “(Shareholders) brought their friends to the track, and the word-of-mouth and chatter was good for racing. It would have been fine even if Square Dancer had just been an average performer.”

The club also raced a 2-year-old Barretts sale purchase named Urban Achiever who provided a reality check. He made one start this year and finished sixth.

“He was our first loss and people came up and asked me what was wrong with him,” Yates said. “They are absorbing their lessons.”

Mary-Margaret Bentley, a Vancouver marketing professional, is one club member who jumped in early at the chance “to be more than a guest” at the track.

“I grew up loving horses and have followed racing since I was in fifth grade. It was all about the mystique of training and breeding,” she said. “In the club every one of us had the thrill to feel a different connection than you do from the other side of the fence. There is also a real camaraderie among the owners, getting to know each other.”

Encouraged by the demand, Hastings will create a second racing club next year. Like the inaugural effort, one club will offer 200 shares on two horses. The second club will offer 300 shares on three horses. As of now, only four of the 200 club members are not returning, and one shareholder has decided instead to form an ownership group.

“One of them is moving and another has decided to go in with some other owners, so he can have a bigger share of the horses,” said Yates. “So the club has already accomplished what we set out to achieve.”

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