British Columbia

Is it the final stretch for small town horse racing in B.C.?

The Interior Horse Racing Association of B.C. used to run live horse racing at four different racetracks and on various days throughout the summers. This year there is one day of live racing, at only one track. And officials say they don’t know how much longer they can sustain the industry.

Osoyoos has the only racetrack to host live horse racing in B.C. interior this summer

Five horses and riders tear out of the gate and thunder down the dirt at Desert Park in Osoyoos in 2013. (Richard McGuire, Osyoos Times)

Against a backdrop of rolling, dusty hills, horses and jockeys thunder down a dirt track, cheered on by hundreds. It's summer at Desert Park racetrack in Osoyoos, B.C., but it's a sight that's becoming less and less common.

Saturday, August 20, saw the only day of live horse racing in B.C.'s Interior for all of 2016. 

"We're proud of it. We worked hard to get it," said Pete Hormes, the president of the Interior Horse Racing Association. "It feels like you're keeping something alive for the people who love it so much. But on the other hand, trends change."

A once-thriving 'B' circuit

Thoroughbred horse racing runs from spring to fall at Hastings Racecourse in the Lower Mainland. But in its heyday, there were dozens of days of racing at four tracks in the Interior as well: Kin Park in Vernon, Sunflower Downs in Princeton, Sagebrush Downs in Kamloops, and Desert Park. 

The racetrack in Kamloops in 1905. (Kamloops Museum/B.C. Archives)

"There were people camping on the infield, anywhere where they could go to stay overnight," said Hormes, who also owns racehorses. "There was no place to park, the grandstands were full."

"I'm really not sure what happened," said Paddy Head, the vice president of the Desert Park Exhibition Society and a former jockey herself. "In the 80s and 90s, the Interior had a really good 'B' track." 

A field of four horses races down the stretch at Kin Park in Vernon, B.C. (Year unknown) (Vernon Museum/B.C. Archives)
How do you bring your horse in to train it to run one day a year?- Robyn Dalziel, Vernon Exhibition Society

Head says the circuit started to fall apart in the early 2000s. There was no racing at all in Osoyoos for more than a decade, although in 2013 organizers resurrected the meet. Since then, the other three tracks have dried up.

Horses pound down the stretch at Sunflower Downs racetrack in Princeton, B.C. in 2008. (Stephanie Mercier)

Head isn't sure what caused the downfall, but she doesn't think it's a lack of public interest. "I've just been here since 2013 and the crowds have been phenomenal," she said. 

Pete Hormes agrees. "[They're] good crowds. About 1,000 to 1,400. Everybody has a great time." 

Number 8 pulls ahead at the finish line during a race at Desert Park in Osoyoos on Saturday August 20, 2016. (Aaron Clark)

Not enough money, not enough horses

Organizers instead point to a lack of money as the societies that put on the races are, for the most part, non-profits with much of the work being done by volunteers.

Still, in order to entice owners to bring their horses to compete, organizers have to offer a 'purse' for each race.

But the societies say coming up with purse money, which is frequently fundraised, is more and more challenging. 

Hopeful bettors line up to make a wager at Desert Park in Osoyoos on August 20, 2016. (Aaron Clark)

Meanwhile for owners, keeping and training a horse is ever more expensive. 

Robyn Dalziel is the head of the Vernon Exhibition Society and used to breed and race horses. She said the cost of raising thoroughbreds is becoming prohibitive, especially when there are fewer chances to win back some of that money.

"When you're paying an exercise rider every day to get on that horse, you're paying to feed it, you're paying stall rental [...] how do you bring your horse in to train it to run one day a year?"

Desert Park racetrack in Osoyoos on race day, Saturday August 20, 2016. (Aaron Clark)

Is it the end? 

At this point, it's by no means certain there will be any days of racing in the Interior of B.C. next year. 

There were six races on the card that attendees could wager on at Osoyoos' Desert Park on Saturday August 20, 2016. (Desert Park Exhibition Society)

"It's looking very dim," said Pete Hormes. "I would love it if there was, but somehow there would have to be assurance of funding and that's really hard to get. "He admits this may be the end of an era for the Interior circuit. 

Others are more optimistic. Osoyoos mayor Sue McKortoff volunteers selling tickets at the races. 

She said it's great fun, and she'd love to see racing continue in Osoyoos.

"If it brings people to town and it's something fun for them to do, then you know, we're all over that."

Paddy Head doesn't think it's the end.

"There are people who say that, but maybe it's because I'm an optimist," she said. She thinks a partnership with the B.C. Standardbred Association to bring harness racing to the interior might be the answer.

Pete Hormes says there has been talk of that, but he's concerned the public won't be as interested in watching those races.

Horses and jockeys come around the final turn during a race at Desert Park in Osoyoos in 2013. (Richard McGuire, Osoyoos Times)

In Vernon, Robyn Dalziel says she is still hoping to bring racing back to Kin Park, and she also sees harness racing as a potential solution. But when asked if she sees a future for racing in the Interior, she's circumspect.

"I don't know if you can say if it'll be back like it was before."