Hastings beat the odds with Super Mario in 2012; Whitecaps face big ticket challenges in 2013

High prices for high-definition televised games in Canada’s most expensive city caused Whitecaps and Lions attendance projections to fall below expectations, harming BC Place’s operational ...

If you predicted one of the city’s smallest athletes would become its biggest sports newsmaker in 2012, then you have a horseshoe stuck in an uncomfortable place and you should buy a lottery ticket if you haven’t already.

Mexican import Mario Gutierrez went to the Kentucky Derby on Cinco de Mayo to ride the longshot I’ll Have Another and achieved a thrilling victory. On the day that Churchill Downs hosted the continent’s biggest race, the second most-famous track in the world was Hastings Racecourse. Gutierrez told every reporter he could where he developed his jockey skills. The timing could not have been better for the struggling bullring on the Pacific National Exhibition grounds. The Vancouver Canucks were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the BC Lions had yet to report to training camp.

Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another won the Preakness Stakes, but their bid for the Triple Crown was stopped short by a career-ending injury days before the Belmont Stakes. Gutierrez raced to $5.2 million in earnings and made mentor Glen Todd a happy man. Having a star jockey brought new and old punters to Hastings and played a role in bringing tenant Great Canadian Gaming and landlord City of Vancouver together for a two-year extension. Will the Richmond company prolong the Gutierrez glow or hand the reins of the track to another operator?

Here’s a sure bet for 2013: Tennis will be tops at the T-Bird.

The University of BC’s Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre has been mostly empty since the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. On the second anniversary weekend of the Games’ opening, however, the only notable gold medallist in Vancouver was Daniel Nestor. Canada’s Sydney 2000 doubles gold medallist and Team Canada lost a Davis Cup tie to France, but the house was packed and rocking. Tennis Canada has booked the building for a Feb. 1-3 encore. This time, against Rafael Nadal and Spain. Ole.

UBC Athletics once had ambitions to join Simon Fraser University in NCAA but now appears rudderless. T-Birds’ football kicker Billy Pavlopoulos mysteriously disappeared from the roster and was eventually banned two years for steroids. UBC announced the hiring of well-qualified Marc Rizzardo to coach the women’s soccer team and then claimed it made the hire prematurely.

Let’s hope fewer mistakes are made in 2013 as UBC begins to welcome the Whitecaps, who are building a $23.5 million training centre at the Point Grey campus, with $14.5 million in taxpayers’ funding.

The Whitecaps had a decent first half of their second Major League Soccer season but struggled to score after a revolving door of players. They did give David Beckham and the eventual champion Los Angeles Galaxy a brief scare in the teams’ single-game, first-round playoff match.

The biggest crowd for soccer at renovated BC Place Stadium in 2012 was 25,427 for the January 29 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying final, a 4-0 Canada loss. Captain Canada Christine Sinclair led the team to a bronze medal at the London Olympics in August after a heartbreaking extra time loss to the U.S. Instead of capitalizing on Canada’s first summer team sport medal since 1936, the Whitecaps oddly withdrew from the W-League for 2013.

Whitecaps’ executive chairman John Furlong was unwillingly engaged in the biggest off-field controversy of the year. He sued the Georgia Straight for defamation after an exposé alleged he abused schoolchildren after he came to Burns Lake in 1969 as a lay Catholic missionary. The former VANOC boss awaits the result of an RCMP investigation, while those who read his Patriot Hearts memoir or attended his speeches wonder why the successful Irish immigrant neglected to mention his first trip to Canada.

Furlong and the Whitecaps’ biggest challenge for 2013 will be to increase sales of higher-priced club seats and suites to Vancouver’s business community. The BC Lions need to introduce a cheaper ticket. They only saw a 2% bump after winning the Grey Cup at home. In their zeal to cash in on the 2011 championship, the Leos raised prices. Even the traditional 7-Eleven discounts were insufficient. Once two-for-one, the pairs were only $10 off.

High prices for high-definition televised games in Canada’s most expensive city caused Whitecaps and Lions attendance projections to fall below expectations, harming BC Place’s operational revenue. It didn’t need bad news, after the BC Liberals’ February faux pas when the $35 million to $40 million Telus naming rights deal was cancelled. Now the government won’t tell us how much it paid to Telus for all the equipment installed in the stadium.

The Lions failed to break their Grey Cup repeat jinx, but the Toronto Blue Jays–stocked Vancouver Canadians won the Northwest League pennant again. A threepeat in 2013?

The Abbotsford Heat continued to burden taxpayers in the Fraser Valley, but the Calgary Flames affiliate in the American Hockey League enjoyed capacity crowds during the NHL lockout at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. The wished-for privatization of the rink and team by the Aquilinis didn’t happen. Will it remain a rumour in 2013 or become reality? •

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