It’s a pretty quiet time on Alberta’s racetracks as the calendar moves through January. Shedrows at Northlands Park are the most active as the run of Saturday harness racing continues. Elsewhere, the breeders are keeping an eye on pregnant mares with the foaling season on the horizon.
Behind the scenes, though, a lot of planning is going on. The HBPA and Century Downs are trying to nail down final details of a small thoroughbred meet to be staged at the Balzac track starting sometime in September. It would be the first live thoroughbred racing in the Calgary market in nine years and southern Alberta owners and breeders would dearly love to be able to see their animals live in action without having to commute to Edmonton or sitting down in front of a monitor.
It’s to be hoped that horsemen recognize the need to put something attractive on the fall agenda. Back in the days of Stampede Park’s fall meet, the Stampede Futurity for 2 year olds was one of the meet’s highlights. That could be a really attractive way to re-introduce thoroughbred racing to the Calgary market.
In addition to the provincial racing plan for 2017, there’s also a discussion going on about Alberta’s participation in Canada’s sesqui-centennial as well as in the 250th anniversary of horse racing in Canada. To that end, the national Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society, Standardbred Canada, and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, are at work on a number of projects to celebrate those milestones and bring horse racing into a sharper national focus. Alberta groups within those agencies have plans to contribute to the national events and to highlight any number of stories here at home.
“Horse racing in Alberta started more than 130 years ago, so we have a big story to tell and a good story to tell,” Jean Kruse told me. Alberta’s Manager of the CTHS is spearheading the Alberta portion of the celebration. “We’ve had a number of innovations that started here that became industry standards in North America, including the use of helmets and flak jackets for racing participants. Some of the earliest pari-mutuel racing was done here. Edmonton and Calgary were cornerstones of the development of racing in western Canada.”
“Then you think about the people who were involved in Alberta racing early in their careers and used that as a springboard to international success. On the thoroughbred side, you have people like Max Bell, and Frank McMahon, and riders like Johnny Longden, George Woolf, Don MacBeth, and Red Pollard. On the Standardbred side, folks like Brad and Agnes Gunn, Forrest Wilson, the Hennessy and Clark families, and others, have made a big contribution to the development of Alberta racing. There’s probably a chapter for Ralph Klein and Doug Mitchell for putting together the modern racing entertainment centre concept that has become an important part of stabilizing the financial structure of racing and breeding.”
And we haven’t even begun to talk about other breeds and other tracks outside of Edmonton and Calgary. Long time harness racing trainer-driver, Rod Hennessy, once told me he’s driven horses in pari-mutuel races on 13 different tracks in the province. Each of them has a story to tell. I don’t think there’s a racetrack anymore in Fort Macleod. But in 1901, there was a track there. It was home to the Fort Macleod Turf Club, incorporated in that year.
It’s a big project and we’re just getting underway with it. The focus will be to develop some stories in connection with some of the major events of the year. Those stories can be told through the eyes, the memories, or the anecdotes of the people who were a major part of the development of horse racing in Alberta.
The way to make the history as complete as possible, will be for the people in Alberta racing, at all levels, contribute to the development of the story. Maybe you’ve got pictures or clippings, telling the story of some personal or family achievement in the sport. Maybe you’ve got a diary or a scrapbook that tells a story. Maybe you’ve been in the game all your life and would be willing to sit down and tell a story. If any of these labels, apply to you, we’d love to hear from you.