Every spring, typically in mid-April, Audrey and Robert Brown will make their way to Vancouver’s only horseracing track. Leaving their apartment Saturday morning, they head to Hastings Racecourse with just a set of programs and distant memories.
As they enter the building, there isn’t a grand flower arrangement, there aren’t crowds of people, few are dressed to the nines and the once swankiest establishment in town, seems to have lost its appeal. Still, year after year, when opening day comes, you can bet that the Browns will be sitting in their box seats, surrounded by friends and family, enjoying the sport they lived and love.
April 15 marked Hastings Racecourse’s 124th opening day, a ritual Audrey and Robert have grown accustomed to since they began working there. Audrey worked in the club house at Hastings, managing the upstairs dining room while Robert owned and trained a stable of horses.
Robert remembers being a child – growing up around the area – climbing the trees to watch the horses run Hastings five-and-a-half furlong racetrack. At a young age he would walk the horses, earning a small wage, until he eventually became a trainer himself; a skill he picked up working for and observing other trainers.
Once he and Audrey married in 1955 they traveled to some of the larger racetracks down south: Golden Gate, Santa Anita and Tanforan – Audrey usually working in the office while Robert trained. In 1962, the couple settled back in Vancouver, working at Hastings Racetrack for the rest of their careers.
“There’s great anticipation for opening day,” Audrey explained, as the feeling most of the staff would have during preparation, weeks in advance, for the kick-off to the six to seven month racing season.
Years ago, the track was owned and operated by Jack Diamond, “the godfather of Hasting,” according to Audrey and Robert. When they remember Hastings in its prime, they remember Jack. “It’s gone downhill since Jack Diamond passed on,” said Robert, the heart and soul of the track was his doing.
Through the years, Hastings has become more of a secondary establishment amongst Vancouverites, not the must-be-in-attendance spot it used to be. “What really hurt racing were the lotteries,” explained Audrey, noting that before lotteries were formed, Hastings was one of the only places to gamble in Vancouver. There were many other aspects that damaged the track’s vitality in Vancouver, one being the introduction of major sports teams: Vancouver Canucks, Vancouver Whitecaps and B.C. Lions.
This past summer, Hastings Racecourse was in the media when a Hastings jockey, Mario Gutierrez, rode a Canadian-born horse to victory in two of the three races of the Triple Crown. For a quick minute, Audrey and Robert saw the glitz return to this Racetrack. It brought back the massive crowds and the TV cameras that were the norm in Hastings’ heyday.
According to Audrey and Robert, the biggest difference between “the old days” and now, are the crowds. Hastings today seems to attract a much younger crowd, offering cheap beer, slot machines and a more relaxed atmosphere. There’s no longer a dress code, although there is the odd young person in a flashy-suit or an over sized hat – perhaps to experience what it used to be like, but most likely to mimic what is seen on TV shows and movies.
Hastings does still offer some hope and excitement to those who knew it in its prime. For many people who grew up around the track, like Robert and Audrey, it’s a place to see old friends. Every opening day “the old crowd is there, as long as they can stand and talk” Robert said. They’ve made many friends throughout their 51 years at Hastings.
“With each opening day, its new hope,” Audrey confided. There’s hope for the riders, hope for the owners, hope for the gamblers and hope for those that remember the way the track used to be. The track that let them feel they belonged.
Live racing can currently be watched at Hastings Racetrack (PNE Gate 6 or 9, Vancouver, B.C. V5K 3N8), every Saturday and Sunday, the first race starting at 1:50 p.m. They will also have Friday night live racing, starting at the end of May. For more information on Hastings Racecourse, visit their website: www.hastingspark.com.
Connect with Parker Lund on Twitter @lund_parker.
Photo: Raj Taneja