SPORTS

I'll Have Another jockey energizes fan base at Vancouver racetrack

06/09/2012 07:26 EDT | Updated 08/09/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - There's a sense of optimism amongst veteran horse-racing fans, like 14-year-old Madison Hall, at Vancouver's Hastings Park these days.

For 10 of her 14 years, Hall has been coming to the track with her family to watch the ponies run, but only recently has she seen bigger crowds and younger fans, and she credits that to one man.

The Mexican-born, Vancouver-trained jockey, Mario Gutierrez.

"More people get to experience this because most people didn't know about it until Mario raced," Hall said on Saturday. "I think a lot more people are going to start showing up because they know about this place now."

Until Friday morning, excitement among horse-racing fans worldwide was building, with Gutierrez and his horse, I'll Have Another, entered in the Belmont Stakes, hoping to capture the elusive Triple Crown. It's a feat that hasn't been pulled off since 1978.

But after winning the Kentucky Derby May 5 and the Preakness just two weeks later, the horse was scratched from the race Friday and retired because of a tendon injury.

Still, the crowds came out to Hastings Park to celebrate Gutierrez and his successful run.

Some wore fancy feathered hats; others, formal dresses, and suits and ties. A more casual look was adopted by some who chose to wear "Go Mario Go" T-shirts and even shorts.

Against a backdrop of the North Shore mountains, and under grey skies with promises of sun, fans sauntered through the park, taking in the smells of barbecued burgers and cigar smoke.

One of those wearing a fancy feathered hat was Sue Daugulis, a Vancouver resident who said she hasn't been to the track since the 1970s.

"We were going to be here because of Mario," she said.

Not far away stood Diane Gill and her one-year-old daughter, Naomi.

Gill, who said she has come to the park for "eons," credited her and her family's attendance not just on Gutierrez but because of renewed efforts by park management to attract families.

She said the park now offers live music and more food options, and there's even stuff for kids to do.

"The kids can actually get right up front and pet the horses," she said.

Tracy Hall, Madison's mom, agreed that the park is a family friendly place, and the media buzz around Gutierrez has only attracted more people.

She said there's now a sense of excitement.

"Mario's been able to reach out to everybody, people not even thinking about racing, to sort of make it an entertainment option," said Howard Blank, vice-president of the Great Canadian Gaming Corp., which runs Hastings Park racetrack.

"I think today we're seeing that."

He said management has also worked hard to attract a new, younger crowd, offering DJs, fashion events, Friday night races and even "hooky" races for those who want to get off work early.

While attendance at horse-racing events has been dropping around the world, the crowds actually rose by 10 to 15 per cent at Hastings Park in 2011, said Blank.

"I think the thing that Mario's done is put us back on the map as a place for people to come and enjoy," he said.

The park intends to bring Gutierrez back for several races this summer. It's even working with the City of Vancouver on a special proclamation to honour the jockey, said Blank.

For Gill, though, there's a few simple things the park can do to bring her and her family back.

"To keep us coming? Keep it reasonably priced would be our biggest thing," she said. "Good prices. You know what, just keep having great races, just a selection of horses to see. We just love coming to see all the different horses."

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