After years of questions whether live harness racing would ever return to the Calgary area, the inaugural meet at Century Downs concluded this past weekend with high praise from both track officials and horsemen.
Director of Racing Jackson Wittup told Trot Insider that the first year at Century Downs wasn't without its hiccups, but he was extremely pleased overall. He noted that "the general atmosphere was good" and the horsemen helped put on a consistent product.
"My hat's off to them," said Wittup of the province's horsemen. "They were basically shipping from Edmonton three times a week...so it was more an inconvenience than a hardship."
Horseman Kelly Hoerdt, who estimates he made the near-three-hour trek from his homebase at Bedrock Training Centre to Century 73 times over the year, heaped praise on the track management and Horse Racing Alberta for making racing at Century a reality.
"If it wasn't for Century Downs and people like [HRA CEO] Shirley McClellan that made this happen, those are the heroes in my opinion...they've got some great people there on the racing side of it," with Hoerdt singling out track superintendent Don Monkman, Wittup and Raeann Gemmill.
Wittup also credited his staff for their efforts in ensuring the first season at Century went off as smoothly as it did.
"My staff, especially getting ready for the opening, and the entire racing team went above and beyond the call of duty to make it happen."
One of the inconveniences came in the way of stabling, with the construction of a second stabling barn originally slated to be ready for summer still not completed due to a combination of issues.
"I can tell you that the horsemen and the staff had to have an awful lot of patience; we thought our second permanent stabling barn would be ready in June or July and we're now hoping for January."
Where the horsemen were able to find consistency was in the track surface, much more suitable for varying weather conditions than the surface at Alberta Downs.
"The track had some issues; it was hard but nothing serious. We had a couple of days where the thought was if this was Lacombe (Alberta Downs) we would have cancelled, and by the end of the day we're watering the track so there was never any jeopardy of not racing because a hail storm hit or something...that shows stability for the horsemen here.
"I can't imagine what it would take for us here to cancel due to track conditions, and that's a huge plus."
How was the track received locally? Wittup was thrilled to see a younger demographic in the crowd, and even some making an event out of a day at the track. That youth movement included Packwood Grand, a group of "like-minded Calgarians committed to culture." The group set up a day at the races this past July and has already booked its 2016 return date to Century.
Wittup would like to see some growth in the handle, noting that the track did have some cards that produced six-figure wagering numbers. Given his days at Stampede Park, Wittup thinks of racing returning to Calgary, while track ownership considers it a new entity as this is Century's first horse racing venture. Thus, Wittup was expecting to hit that $100,000 handle mark a bit more frequently.
"I know Paul [track General Manager Paul Ryneveld] is happy in the fact that if you count it as coming into a brand new market, he was happy -- especially with the demographics of the live crowd."
"Overall, for a first year, I would call it a success," said Hoerdt.
One of the major changes coming for Century in 2016 is the introduction of thoroughbred racing. That could shift the racing schedule at the Calgary area track to an earlier start than April. These dates have yet to be finalized, but Century might race as early as February.
With Century now dark for live harness racing, the Standardbreds make their return to Northlands Park this weekend with mainly Friday-Saturday dates through the end of the calendar year.