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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Two Canadian stories for a rainy Tuesday

**Love those comments about cancellations of races by jocks (see previous posts and comments)
Check out two news stories from today….


(Harness running lines in question)

(story appeared in the Ottawa and Toronto Sun, by Jorge Berrara)


The operator of the country's top horse tracks is being investigated over possible rule violations by a federal agency that is itself facing questions it tried to sidestep the matter.
A senior official with the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency told the Ottawa Sun that Woodbine Entertainment may have failed to report serious complaints about the accuracy of betting information sold by the company in its harness-racing programs.
"I believe that they should have notified the CPMA," said Ron Nichol, director of operations for the agency. "The inquiry is ongoing and like any investigation at the outset, we do the same thing, we start looking into it and it develops."
Nichol said possible penalties could range from a warning to criminal charges and a loss of permit.
'TOLD TO DROP IT'
Questions have also surfaced that the agency initially tried to pass off the issue.
The Ottawa-born man who approached the CPMA with complaints about Woodbine Entertainment said he was told by an agency official late in the summer that the agency decided to not pursue the case.
"The official called me and told me that he had been told to drop it," said Jeh Stirling, who took his complaint to the CPMA after 23 frustrating months banging on Woodbine Entertainment's door.
Nichol said the official assigned to Stirling's file had been pulled off the case and replaced by Ontario regional manager Bob McReavy.
"He is following up," said Nichol. "We felt that the regional manager was better suited and had more time and resources to handle the issue."
Stirling, however, met with McReavy and Nichol in Toronto in late August during a CPMA regulatory review session and they never mentioned the ongoing probe.
Nichol said he couldn't explain why. "I guess we dropped the ball," he said.
Woodbine Entertainment operates Canada's top harness tracks, Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto and Mohawk Racetrack west of the city. Woodbine is also Canada's top thoroughbred track.
The company handles about $1.5 million in bets on an average card of harness racing, and holds five cards of harness racing a week.
A large portion of bets comes from off-track betting locations across North America, including at The Prescott in Ottawa's Little Italy and a Montreal Rd. operation in Vanier. Bettors can also wager on Woodbine races from other tracks, including Rideau-Carleton Raceway and Hippodrome D'Aylmer.
CORRECTED SOME INFO
"There are huge numbers of players that bet on Woodbine. It is one of the Top 10 or 15 tracks in North America," said Nichol.
Horse racing in Ontario is regulated by the CPMA and the Ontario Racing Commission. ORC executive director John Blakney said provincial officers met with Stirling and Woodbine Entertainment officials on the issue after they were contacted by the CPMA.
Blakney said the company corrected some published betting information and installed stricter oversight to minimize errors.
He also said the matter was an example of why the racing industry needs tighter rules.
The CPMA, however, has gathered evidence Woodbine Entertainment breached industry regulations, according to an internal agency report obtained by the Sun.
The report said Woodbine Entertainment failed to tell regulators they received complaints about betting information in programs, and that the company has been selling flawed betting data to the public since 2004.
The report also said the company ignored complaints because they came from only one person.
Woodbine Entertainment would not say whether it ever reported the complaints to regulators.
It refused to answer several e-mailed requests for clarification.
The company said Stirling's complaints were serious enough to warrant an overhaul of procedures and forced changes to published betting information. The company said it planned to soon unveil an electronic tracking system.
"This is a game of inches and the math is extremely relevant and there is no room for mistakes of any kind," said Stirling, who grew up in Peterborough and attended the University of Ottawa.
"They should not be selling incorrect information. You are using the program to formulate a wager," said another major horse player, who has owned dozens of harness horses, but requested anonymity because he still has strong ties to the industry.
"The average Joe who walks into the race track is behind the eight ball."
Horse players call race programs the "Bible."
The programs usually contain detailed information of the six previous races run by horses called chart lines. The lines are one of the most important pieces of data bettors use to decide where to put their money. Where they put their money influences the odds.
The complaints centre on the chart lines, which are primarily compiled by a racing official called a charter. The charter tracks the horses at four points throughout a race. The charter marks a horse's position at each point, noting how many lengths it is behind the leader and whether it is on the inside or outside of the track.
The finishing positions are based on race film.
Regulations require racing programs to include chart lines and they are expected to be accurate. The charts are authenticated by ORC judges after races.
Stirling said he has found thousands of serious charting mistakes after reviewing race video and comparing them to the charts. Most professional players review their own races.
Stirling believes the sudden decline in accuracy began the day after the track's veteran charter retired.
'HORRIBLE TO REALLY BAD'
"It was like someone threw a switch," said Stirling.
He immediately called Woodbine in March 2004 to tell the company about the problem, believing that would be the end of it.
But little improved.
"It went from horrible to really bad," he said.
Woodbine Entertainment's chief financial officer, Steve Mitchell, said the average harness-racing bettor doesn't pay much attention to the charted line.
"I doubt if I told them that in this particular line, this horse was not fifth, he was seventh, for the average person it would not make a a big difference," Mitchell said.
The head of the ORC said the charts should not be off by much, if at all. "The ordinary person who goes to the racetrack and bets a few dollars should expect that those lines are relatively accurate," said Blakney.
Blakney said there are no hard and fast rules governing charting. The racing commission has launched a survey of charting practices across the country to tighten regulations.





Ground being cleared for $1B megamall racetrack project near Calgary

DEAN BENNETT
Sunday, October 15, 2006

(CP) - It's being called the biggest project in Alberta outside of the oilsands.

It's a billion-dollar horse racing track, casino, veterinary college, hotel, and destination shopping centre on Calgary's northern outskirts, and it's raising environmental concerns and questions about its labour impact in a province that no longer even pretends to keep pace with the "Help Wanted" signs.

Welcome, shoppers, to the debate over East Balzac Mall.

Graders and earth movers are busy clearing the ground for it near Balzac, an agricultural hamlet named for the French novelist.

When the mall is completed by fall 2008, the jewels in its 270-hectare crown will be two racetracks - a one-mile thoroughbred track and a seven-furlong standardbred track.

Beside them will be 102,000 square metres (1.1 million square feet) of retail space with 18 anchor tenants, more than 180 specialty stores, restaurants, a movie theatre and a bowling alley.

It's drawing comparisons to the shopping colossus to the north, West Edmonton Mall, for the sheer size of its footprint. Its workforce is estimated at 3,200 in the retail side and 1,700 at the track in horse racing season.

There will be more than 5,000 parking spaces.

John Scott, a vice-president for the developer Ivanhoe Cambridge, says Alberta's soaring petro-powered economy shows there's room in the marketplace.

"The Calgary-Edmonton corridor is a fabulous trade corridor," said Scott.

"The growth north of Calgary and south of Airdrie is going to be phenomenal over the next few years."

Deputy premier Shirley McClellan, speaking in the legislature earlier this fall, labelled it "one of the largest projects outside of the oilsands in this province."

Scott said the developers are aware of Alberta's labour crisis, since it's already added six months to the project's timelime.

The main environmental concern is how the project will get its water - the province isn't taking applications to draw water from the high-demand Bow River.

Instead, the Municipal District of Rocky View, the local government responsible, is asking to take water from the Red Deer River and transfer it to the Bow basin.

Mayor Morris Flewwelling of the nearby city of Red Deer, which also draws from the Red Deer River, says such a transfer would set a dangerous precedent.

"It's the incremental whittling away we're concerned about on the smallest and healthiest river in the system," said Flewwelling.

When houses and shops go up around the megamall later, he says, that water pipe that services the mall will no longer be big enough.

Rocky View has sent out public notices about the licence bid, and Alberta Environment will review the reaction before deciding whether to issue a licence. But Environment Minister Guy Boutilier has said the proposal is well within the river's capacity.

Scott says they're confident enough to clear the terrain: "It's not a great stretch (to clear the ground), but obviously (the water licence) is something we want in place before we proceed further."

Kevin Taft, leader of Alberta's Liberal Opposition, sees little in the way of public consultation.

"The people who rely on the Red Deer River have a right to be informed and to be involved in these kinds of decisions, and they haven't had that right fulfilled," said Taft.

He also worries that the mall will worsen the labour shortage and add to traffic troubles.

But Rocky View Reeve Albert Schule says rather than add to the congestion, the mall will alleviate it by allowing shoppers to avoid Calgary's core.

"This creates a bit of a balance," said Schule. "This may affect the other malls, but I think it's going to create a little more competition and I thought a little competition is always good for the economy."

The project does not have a name, although some have nicknamed it East Balzac Mall. Scott said Ivanhoe Cambridge and the United Horsemen of Alberta (UHA) are still working on the title, known simply for now as the Alberta Project.

Ivanhoe Cambridge is handling the retail side. The UHA is composed of industry leaders who have joined forces to privately finance the racetrack, which will feature a 500-slot machine casino, a 700-seat simulcast room, an amphitheatre, hotel and conference centre.

David Reid, chairman of Horse Racing Alberta, said the new tracks will bring bigger races, bigger purses and more experienced riders and workers: "We will attract certainly some of the best horses in Canada and perhaps some wonderful horses from across North America."

Max Gibb, the chief executive officer of UHA, said a first-class track will also bring in the lucrative simulcast betting.

"(Simulcast betting) has become the rage, the movement in the last 10 years," he said.

"Right now we're betting to New York, but New York is not betting us."

Len Kubas, a Toronto-based marketing and retail consultant, said this is one of the rare retail projects to come on stream in the last few years.

But he said given the population base - Calgary recently surpassed a million - "it seems to make sense that Calgary or southern Alberta could in fact support a megamall of those proportions."

The players believe it will.

They've placed their bets.

And the hardhats are at the post.

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