It is almost 600 kilometres north from the sound of galloping racehorses at Hastings Park to Williams Lake, British Columbia but for Madelene Doyle, a horse racing fanatic, involvement in the sport had always been a lifetime away.
Tucked away in her keepsakes are newspaper clippings of the great Secretariat and his Triple Crown sweep in 1973 and a journal with her sketches of a horse farm with a track that she one day hoped to build.
Growing up on her parents’ cattle ranch deep in central B.C., Doyle often snuck away on cow-branding day to catch the Kentucky Derby on the television and once, as a teenager, visited Hastings Park with an uncle.
That was as close as she got to the track until this past February when, house-bound because of a total hip replacement, the result of a horrific car crash with her parents in 2012, the 53-year-old spotted an intriguing post on Facebook.
“It was on the Hastings Park page and it was about getting involved in owning a horse,” said Doyle. “At first I thought it would never happen for me. I have struggled [financially] most of my life.”
When curiosity led her to read further, however, Doyle found the cost to join the newly-formed Hastings Racing Club was $250.
“I can spend $250 on lottery tickets and never win,” she said. “I thought I had to take the chance or I would regret it the rest of my life.”
With that bold decision, Doyle landed herself a spot in one of the biggest Canadian horse racing stories of 2015.
The Hastings Racing Club came about after two years of planning between the track, the B.C. Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and the B.C. division of Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. The idea was based on a similar club developed by Emerald Downs in Washington state to draw new people, prospective owners perhaps, to racing.
“We had plenty of incentive programs going to bring more horses to race at Hastings but we weren’t able to attract new owners,” said Darren MacDonald, general manager of Hastings. “Racing needs owners and we wanted to bring in people and let them experience horse ownership, make it fun and have a one-time fee.”
The track used money from its marketing budget to form the Hastings Racing Club and purchase two horses. MacDonald said that in less than two months, all 200 shares in the club had been sold at $250 apiece and almost another 200 were on a waiting list.
The buy-in fee included all costs for training and care for the horses, a tab that usually runs about $2,500 per horse per month, an owner’s license, access to backstretch and barn visits with the horse and trainer and a special section in the grandstand for club owners. More than two-thirds of the club members were racing fans with no previous racing involvement.
“It’s a real mix, economically, of people,”’ said Richard Yates, manager of Hastings Racing Club and secretary-treasure of the HBPA. “There are some professionals and some who hope to learn more about the business and use the club as a stepping stone.”
Don Brunette, a professor at the University of B.C. in the dentistry faculty, was a casual racing fan intrigued by the “intellectual challenge” of picking a winner of a horse race.
“It just sounded liked a good opportunity to find out more about horse racing,” said Brunette. “My son heard about it when he was in Toronto and he suggested I pursue it.”
MacDonald and Yates brought trainer Steve Henson into the mix and the three were determined to purchase two race-ready horses for the first year of the club.
“We wanted to make sure we gave them a half-decent horse to cheer on rather than a claiming runner,” said Yates.
The search proved to be a bit more difficult than Yates or MacDonald expected but by early July, with 200 anxious club members chomping at the bit, they had purchased a young, unraced colt named Urban Achiever and the more experienced 5-year-old gelding Square Dancer. A well-travelled, blue-collar racehorse with 23 races already under girth, Square Dancer was picked up privately by Henson following a third place finish in a claiming race at Emerald Downs in late June.
A month later, Square Dancer became the first starter for the Hastings Racing Club when he went into the gate in an upper level claiming race.
“I was out raking hay at my parents’ ranch,” said Doyle. “It was so hot, 30 degrees, and I could not get to the house to watch the race. But when I was done I raced up to their house to find the replay.”
What Doyle saw was a remarkable last-to-first burst by Square Dancer to win by two lengths, taking down $13,000 for the victory.
“I couldn’t believe it, he had won the race,” said Doyle. “I was hollering at the computer.”
That win was just the beginning. On Aug, 3 Doyle made the six-hour drive from Williams Lake to Hastings Park and joined most of the other club members to cheer on the copper-coloured horse in the $100,000 Redekop Classic Handicap.
Despite a stumbling start from the gate, Square Dancer flew down the stretch and won by a nose.
“It was everything I thought it would be,” said Doyle. “The crowd was roaring. Two young girls saw us cheering and they asked me if that was my horse and I said ‘yes’ and they congratulated me. I don’t know if it’s hormones or the horses but I was crying.”
In September, Square Dancer won again, this time in the $50,000 S.W. Randall Plate Handicap and finished his 2015 season with a second-place finish in the province’s prestigious B.C. Premier’s Handicap, a Grade 3 event.
“What an endearing horse he is,’ said Brunette. “He goes out on the track and has that look to him, that he knows his job. He tries every time.”
Square Dancer collected just over $115,000 in Canadian dollars for the Hastings Racing Club, meaning that members double their initial outlay. The gelding was voted as B.C.’s Horse of the Year and champion aged male horse at the annual B.C. Awards ceremony in November.
The wild success of the first year of the club has led to the formation of a second club as well as adding another horse and allowing 100 more people to sign up to the original club Brunette has enrolled his wife and their two adult children into the first club but also will step out in 2016 with Yates and a few other club members to buy their own horse.
“We had a lot of great experiences,” said Brunette. “One was going to the yearling sale in the fall. We had lessons on how to choose a horse by conformation. What really struck me was the affection the grooms and handlers have for the horses. I mean, I saw one woman kiss her horse! I had never seen that before.”
The success of the Hastings Racing Club has led to at least one other jurisdiction, Ontario, to look into duplicating the initiative.
“We are looking at doing a similar type of marketing and educational type of idea for a club,” said Jeff Begg, chief steward of the Jockey Club of Canada which is based at Woodbine. “We have people calling us all the time asking about how to own a racehorse and we don’t have anywhere to send them. With this club idea, you have a larger group of owners for a small dollar commitment and people can follow their horse and be involved with the horse’s career.”
With the 2016 Hastings Park season set to open in May, there are 500 horse owners excited to begin their journey in horse racing.
“We have 500 ambassadors for horse racing,” said Yates. “It creates a great environment at the track as they bring friends and family along with them.”
Doyle is still stunned at the success of the club and said it has been the most fun she has had in many years.
“When I was a young girl, I ate, slept and dreamed horses and racing,’ said Doyle. “I never thought I could be involved. It just goes to show that one should never give up on their dreams, because they really can come true.”