28 March 2006

Wheat City Update from Brandon Sun

Tuesday, March 28th, 2006
Horse breeders, trainers eager for word on racetrack
By: Curtis Brown

Rather than shoot out of the gate in Manitoba, George Isman says the horses he trains will race in some other province unless the provincial government allows the Wheat City Horse Park to get up and running fast.

“From my point of view, this is life or death in order to keep the industry going,” Isman, a standardbred trainer from Gladstone, said at the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair yesterday.

Local horse breeders and trainers are anxious to know whether the province will give the go-ahead for a group of Manitoba and Ontario investors to build a harness racing track and entertainment complex on the outskirts of Brandon.

The Wheat City Horse Park proposal, which would feature a harness track, a restaurant, video lottery terminal lounge and simulcast betting on other horse races, is before the government as it considers whether to allow it to have a licence for VLTs.

The option on the land the developers eyed for the park expired March 15, so the group is looking at other properties and hopes to have the facility open by next summer.

The province has capped the number of VLTs in the province at just over 5,000, so the horse park developers are applying to have terminals moved from other locations to their facility.

Colin Lemoine, a spokesperson for Lotteries Minister Scott Smith, said a final decision hasn’t been made on the horse park. He reiterated yesterday that the VLT cap will not be relaxed for the horse park and that putting a larger number of machines there would mean moving them from other businesses in Brandon or other rural communities.

Fred Gilbert, who raises standardbred horses near Brandon and races them both here and in Alberta, said the local horse industry needs the facility if harness racing is to survive in rural Manitoba.

Without it, Manitoba is missing an opportunity that provinces like Alberta and Ontario are taking advantage of.

He said a permanent home for harness racing would not only mean horse breeders like him would train animals here rather than in Alberta, but that it would create a lot of jobs for veterinarians, blacksmiths, groomers and others whose job it is to care for the animals.

“It’s a big spin-off business,” Gilbert said.

The province currently gives $500,000 a year to the Great Western Harness Racing Circuit, which holds races in several rural communities each summer.

Gilbert said the weekend races are “good, cheap entertainment” for many people, but that it can’t be sustained here without a permanent racing and training facility.

Otherwise, he said more trainers will take their animals and go to Alberta, which not only offers more race days at permanent facilities, but also gives financial incentives for Alberta-bred animals.

“Economically, as far as dollars and cents, it’s not a good investment. You can only race two-and-a-half months of the year here and by the time you pay a trainer, it’s very expensive. In Alberta, I’ve got two horses that have made $12,000 in the past two weeks,” Gilbert said.

Isman, who just sent three horses to race in Ontario, agrees, saying there aren’t enough races in rural Manitoba to sustain the breeders and trainers in the local equine industry.

“We could race another three or four months here, revive the industry and get people who are hanging on now to go in more races and keep them going,” Isman said.

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