CLOCKERS AND GALLOP GIRLS

 Photography: Kari Medig

"At one point we were the only game in town." Wayne Russell is wide awake. On a summer morning at 6 am, the only other people in the Hastings Racecourse parking lot are the homeless and the disoriented in search of after-hours life."Us and the Church." Russell unlocks the gate that separates the frontside of operations from the backside, where the horses, owners, jockeys and other staff live, breathe and share dreams. 

Neglect clings to the dilapidated buildings on the grounds. Weeds and litter collect in the corners; blackberry vines twine through unpainted horse stalls. It's forlorn and yet, not quite depressing.

Wayne, dressed in a suit, is tall, crisp, with an old-fashioned handlebar mustache. "I was born here." He pulls a faded photograph from a protective plastic sleeve on his desk. "In those days, everyone lived in trailers on the grounds. My dad was a rider (jockey). My mom loved here too. I never left."

Pride may be a vice, but it looks good on him, and everyone else here. Races run from mid-April through to the end of October and during that time, days begin in the pre-dawn, warming up like rush hour traffic for the crush and the beat of race days. Clockers, gallop girls, hot walkers, pony people and the clerk of the scales; all gather to hang out and fit in whether they need to be here or not. This is where they belong.

Caught between the ages, Hastings Park is trying to reinvent itself to survive. A casino provides income but that is not the love of the people on the track. Horserace culture in North America is in decline. Community facilities are long gone in many places and the remainder struggle to hang on. But for those who appreciate the sport and the spectacle, the allure of Hastings Park is real.  Rising in the ranks is Uruguayan rider Denis Araujo, 29. He arrived in Vancouver via Australia, where he raced for six years on manicured facilities, in front of lively crowds, every week all year long. "The country track in Australia is better than this city track. Hastings is very technical riding on a bullring track. You need to execute tight turns, quick positions and with short distances, it's very challenging." He shrugs. The forlornness of the place is not inspiring.

Araujo's career began at age 15, racing on a country track near his rural home. He moved to Montevideo when he was 17, then Australia at 21. Vancouver was a means to get to North America, to see what racing was here. "I was told to call Wayne Snow. He arranged everything for me." 

A young man, Araujo arrived in Vancouver friendless, alone, and without having even met Snow. Right from the start, it has been a huge cultural upheaval. "Wayne was busy so he passed me on to Chad (Hoverson)." An ex-rider turned agent, Hoverson reluctantly agreed to take Araujo on and mentor his career. "It was a tough moment," Araujo admits. "I was working with someone I didn't know and I was living in the tack room." Despite his success, making a decent living and third in the rider standings at the course, it's clear that Araujo does not feel at home. He is not planning to stay.

"Horse racing is a big sport in Uruguay. Everyone knows the horses; it's not just for rich people. At home, taxi drivers and families buy horses, everyone shares. They have maybe 20 or 30 percent shares in a horse. It's exciting." Shared ownership has started in Vancouver, but the idea is slow to catch on.

"Are you decent?" Russell knocks on a closed door before we enter. Adjacent to the jockey's room is a sauna, or hotbox, where riders can sweat off a few pounds pre-race. "Most of these guys are good," he assures me, "but you never know." We don't want to surprise anyone. Outside the hotbox in the jockey's room are lockers, clean towels, rows of fantastically light riding boots and leather saddles that are not much more than hard, shaped paper. Silks are hung up in the order of riders for each race, set out by the valet of the day. A large scale occupies the far wall, where the clerk of the scales records each jockey's weight. The ideal number for rider, silks, boots, saddle, and equipment is 52kg (113- 115 pounds).

We carry on to the north end of the paddocks where a clean-shaven Hoverson is making his rounds, coffee cup in hand. In his sixties, Hoverson is articulate, fit and walks with a normal gait, a rarity in retired riders. Like many here, he arrived from the US and never left. "This place is special. Some of the best owners in the business are here; they truly care and they want to be here every race day with us. They are great people."

With a celebrated career behind him, Hoverson does not need to show up every day, which was part of his reluctance in taking on Araujo. But Hastings is in his system, under his skin. "Horses see in black and white," he says as a giant thoroughbred skitters past us. "People and movement are just shadows, so you need everyone to stay on the same side of the horse to avoid startling them." Up close, the animal is a prancing, unpredictable mass of explosive power and weight. And a jockey is a tiny, tiny person. "One thousand pounds of muscle with one hundred pounds at the controls." 
Riding is the great equalizer. "Male or female, you have to be strong, but you can be 65 and still compete."If you want to. Aging riders are typically beat up and broken by the lifestyle, but in principle, the tactics of riding are not dependent on youth. Keeping things legal is where Russell comes in, as Steward of the race. But on the turf, as Hoverson states, "things happen in a second. There is no time to react; you have to be ahead in your thinking. If you happen to fall, it is at least going to hurt and hopefully, you don't break anything. The horses will jump over you if they can."

Jockeys work with the horse's natural inclination to run. "Each one has a mind of its own. What you have to do is get them to relax instead of fighting you. Hold, then at the right moment, let them run. They all want to be first." The power and the grace of an animal in flight, doing what it loves to do, is the attraction of this sport.

He's been the world over. Horse racing is in decline everywhere. "I wish it was different. But racing is not what it once was. People don't invest the time to make it personal." 

Randy Goulding writes for the international racing publication Daily Racing Form, otherwise known as the bettor's bible. Goulding makes predictions on select major national and international races and all of the Hastings events. His father and uncle brought Goulding into the community and like Russell, he is still here. Deciphering a race program is a workout. Goulding's advice is to note the trainer, rider, past performances of the horse and the distance of the race. From there, decide how to play your bet: long shot; safe; colour of the silks; pr appearance of the horse. What are you really going to lose? Twenty bucks is three Starbucks coffees or a couple of pints of craft beer. Seriously. 

So who goes to the races these days? The crowd is a mixture of generations, locals, visitors, drunks and wedding parties, the strata of Vancouver's social fabric. People love that there is no entry fee. Free entrance is rare, the event is live, all kinds of folks are there, and it has a bit of a buzz. One elderly lady and her husband make a point of coming every week during the season, as an outing together. Young couples from the neighbourhood take in the beer and betting as a lark and an opportunity to soak up some of the city's past in the midst of its present. "A live event, with shelter if it's rainiy, gorgoeus views, easy to get here. What could be better?"

Keeping it real, Russell picks up his binoculars in Skybox, perched high above the course where all infractions can be observed and noted. Jockeys are held accountable for any suspicious maneuvers; this is a gaming enterprise after all. Besides watching the races, three observers also review video of each race. It's up to Russell to make the call. 

Guests in Skybox today include Ralph Bowers, the Vancouver Sun photographer for 50 years. Bowers' photos hang in the Hall of Fame in the lobby of the grandstands, including shots of Elvis and Pierre Trudeau in attendance at Hastings Park. Although he retired long ago, he comes every week and places two-dollar bets. He scoffs at Goulding scolding him for today's choices; "What do you know?" he laughs. We're all here because we want to keep the place alive." Renowned former owner of the park was Jack Diamond. "Mr. Diamond was a businessman who cared about people and about Vancouver," says Bower. "He made this place what it was and what remains of it today."

Retired jockey Brownie, Jerry Brownell, echoes the sentiment. "People bet like heck back in the day. Mr. Diamond, he didn't mess around. He was here six days a week, from 7 am until the everything was done." Brownie's voice cracks with emotion. "It's an ugly job out here some days. You love it or you go away."

Is the past a facade, a coat of peeling paint? There is a tinge of charlatanism to these charmers, like carnies spinning magic that in the cold light of dawn reveals itself to be just an illusion. Once upon a time, the stands were filled with well-heeled people who had money in their pockets and were prepared to spend the day riding waves of excitement shared with strangers. The grounds were manicured and the buildings fresh. It was anyone's game.

At the end of the last race, Russell packs up his binoculars and his notes. We weave through the bowels of the casino back to his office. When asked what he thinks has truly been lost over the years of the live event, his answer comes without hesitation. "Cell phones. Everyone wants an instant fix." People can't be bothered to learn how to read the program or work a racing form to place an educated bet."They just want a result." He shrugs. "It's what they're used to."

There have been four generations of Russells at Hastings Racecourse. "I've been here my whole life and I still come to work every day. I'm never bored." Russell's father was a respected trainer who died in a tragic accident saving horses from a fire that broke out in the stables. He may not have wished for his son to follow in his footsteps. But Russell says, "My son is here and my daughter-in-law too. Wouldn't change any of it."

Being part of the track isn't a lifestyle for everyone. Hastings is a time capsule, but in the end, if the racetrack and all that it stands for  - community, belonging, sharing - disappears, the loss is ours.