Written by: Hayley Morrison
Working to attract a steady fan base.
A man on a mission, Darren MacDonald is keen for the 2017 thoroughbred meet at Hastings Racecourse to kick into high gear after the city’s rough winter spell.
“I think we’re starting to finally build after such a terrible winter,” said MacDonald, general manager of Hastings and also director of British Columbia (BC) Racing. “It was the worst winter in 40 years and we got off to a slow start. At the start of the meet it was really cold, the crowds weren’t there, but they are finally starting to pick up again. I think we are going to have a strong finish to the season. We’ve seen our handle bounce back a little bit on track.”
Born and raised in Nanaimo, BC, MacDonald got his first taste of the horse world through his grandfather.
“My grandfather used to raise show Quarter Horses,” he said. “So when I was younger I used to go work on his farm on the weekend and help out with the horses and stuff. That was kind of my (first) exposure to horses.”
In 2007, MacDonald began working at Hastings as the manager of gaming operations for the casino. Over the last several years, he became more involved within the racing industry and transitioned into the role of general manager of the racecourse in 2014.
“It’s pretty much all encompassing,” he said. “I look after the racing and oversee the casino. I have more people under me on the casino side, but on the racing side I pretty much oversee everything. I work with the horsemen — I’m basically the horsemen liaison — and I also look after the racing at our standardbred track.”
Switching hats from gaming to racing, MacDonald takes an active role in putting together the racing schedule, the stakes schedule, conditions books and deciding what races they are going to offer.
On top of his management role, MacDonald also devotes his time and energy to his role as the director of BC Racing.
“I’m dealing with more higher-end stuff like whether we need to make improvements, whether we need to get new equipment — not really day-to-day stuff. In the director role, I’m building the racing schedule for Hastings and Fraser, working with the industry partners on concerns they may have, whether it’s safety-related, track conditions, all those kind of things.”
Given his steady integration into the horse racing industry over the last decade, MacDonald is keenly aware of the need to attract a steady fan base.
“Probably over the last five or six years, our big push has been to try and get younger people out to the races — try and re-invigorate the new generation. I would say we’ve had really good success. We’re drawing pretty good crowds.
“Last year, we built a trackside patio right at the track level with a bar to try to put something that’s cool and something that is going to lure those younger people that are looking for more than just ‘a come to the racetrack experience’ – they are looking for something good. We always have a DJ playing on the tarmac between races just to keep the atmosphere a little more upbeat.”
MacDonald also wants to connect the fans to the horsepeople, including the trainers, jockeys and the people who work the backstretch.
“I want people to have more knowledge about the people in the game. So, every race day in our program on the second page we have a one-page story. It might be on a trainer, it might be on a jockey — just something to give those fans a way to connect more to the players in the game.”
MacDonald is looking for ways to bring his track into the limelight. Later this year Hastings will play host to an Asian Music festival. Based on ticket sales, they hope to draw a substantial crowd between 7,000 to 8,000 people.
“With Vancouver having such a huge Asian population, they are bringing in some of the biggest acts from Taiwan and Korea. An event like that, although it’s not on a race day, I look at that like something that’s going to promote awareness, that there’s actually a racetrack in Vancouver and maybe some of these people in the last 5–10 years that have moved from China, Korea or Taiwan are going to be like, ‘Hey there’s a racetrack! Let’s go out to the races one of these days.’”
Although the struggle remains to draw more fans into the game, MacDonald remains steadfast in his approach as he preps for the rest of the meet and big race days such as the Grade 3 BC Derby in September.
“The atmosphere, it’s an amazing thing. When we have a big day and we get all those people out here, the handle is good – it’s just so rewarding. In an industry that struggles when you can make headway and get people back to the track, I think that’s the most rewarding thing about it.”