There was a steady stream of trucks and trailers pouring into the backstretch at Century Downs on Monday afternoon as thoroughbred and quarterhorse trainers began arriving for the fall meet. The 16-day meet begins on Saturday, Sept. 23rd, marking the return of the breeds to Calgary for the first time in nine years.
“It’ll be a learning curve for all of us,” racing secretary, Tim Lawson, told me. “I’ve already fielded a few complaints, but generally, I think horsemen will be satisfied that we have at least made an effort to accommodate their needs. It hasn’t been for lack of effort, I can tell you that.”
I heard much the same story from a handful of people with whom I renewed acquaintances as I wandered through the backstretch.
“There’s been some grumbling in Edmonton about having to come down here for two months,” veteran horseman, Rick Bunney, told me. “A lot of folks haven’t been here before so they’re not sure what to expect. I saw the facility when I first arrived Monday morning and I’m pleasantly surprised. Sure, there are things you’d like to have, especially tack rooms for proper storage of all the things that are a necessary part of racing. I’m fine with the stalls in my shed row, though, and since I work for Tim Rycroft and he’s shipping 25 horses here, that’s important. And it’s nice to feel like we’re wanted here.”
“Accommodation is a big deal for some of us. I’m lucky. I have a daughter living in Cochrane, about 40 minutes from the track. She just had a baby boy, so I’m a grandfather now. I’ll have a little time to get to know him while I’m here.”
Much the same story from Airdrie area owner, Brian Hebson. The marketing manager for the World Pro Chuckwagon Tour, has owned thoroughbreds for a number of years and has horses spread around tracks in Edmonton, Lethbridge, Winnipeg, and Phoenix.
“It’ll be nice to have some horses 15 minutes from my home,” he said with a smile, as he awaited the arrival of trainer Jerri Robertson’s stable. He was sitting on a chair with his laptop open, doing a little work, when I stopped by. “I’ll have a couple of grooms living in my house, just to help them keep their expenses down.”
And therein lies both the challenge and the opportunity. It’s important for all the owners and breeders in southern Alberta, in particular. They’ve had to commute to racetracks around the province or content themselves with watching their horses on television. It’ll be interesting to see what the presence of live racing means for fans of the sport when racing resumes on Saturday afternoon.
What it means for trainers, though, is a lot of hard work. I watched (and took some sass for doing so) as “Pinky” MacDonald and Rod Haynes unloaded supplies from a trailer. “Remember when a couple of moves a year was the norm in Alberta racing,” I asked. “It was a lot easier thirty years ago when I was younger,” was the response!
And it was good to see Ron Grieves on site, setting up his barn and getting ready to see what the condition sheet looks like for the opening days of racing. Ron trains for Lynn Chouinard’s Bar None Stables and Lynn was one of the originators of United Horsemen of Alberta, the organization that was founded to bring a new racetrack to the city. It’s taken the better part of two decades to get to Saturday’s Opening Day.
“I hope he’ll be well enough to get to the races,” Grieves told me. “This has been his dream for a long time. I’m pleased he’s hung in there and now with Century Casino as the operator, maybe we can get on with growing this industry.”
Growing the industry is on the minds of most progressive thinkers in all parts of the Alberta racing and breeding community. I had an hour last week with Darrell Bauder, who took over from Matt Monaco in May as executive director of the Alberta Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association.
“My dad had a few claiming horses as I was growing up in Edmonton,” he told me, “so I’ve spent a lot of time at the racetrack over the years. In the few years I lived in Toronto building up my IT business, I was still a racing fan. I moved my family back to the Cochrane area and started a small breeding operation with a few mares, to keep myself involved in the business. And during my time on the executive of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society CTHS) in Alberta, I chaired a committee looking at a bunch of breed improvement programs and how we could work with Century to make things better.”
“Now I’ve taken on this new role with the HBPA. I’ve met with Paul Rynevald of Century and with Fred Gillis of Alberta Standardbred (ASHA) and I think there are some things we can do to make things better for everyone in the Alberta racing industry. I thought that when I was with the CTHS. This is a knowledgeable operator with experience in both racing and gaming. We can develop this business together.”
Now, if he could just help put his IT training to good use and help horsemen’s bookkeeper, Amanda Bennett, get her computer up and running, it would be a big step forward in the backstretch.
There will be 16 days of live racing this fall including two Monday cards which have been added for Oct. 2nd and Oct. 9th. Those who want to watch from home can set their computers to www.centurydowns.com to access the track. Entry day will be Wednesdays. Quarterhorse has five added money races on its calendar, including the Canada QH Cup Futurity, a $70,000 sprint, on Oct. 21st. The thoroughbred calendar includes the Herald Plate, a $100,000 stake for 3 year olds and up on Oct. 22nd. There’s also to be an as yet unnamed Fillies & Mares stake for 3 year olds and up going for a purse of $50,000 on Oct. 22nd. The following week, the 2 year olds will get their turn with the Canadian Juvenile for the colts set for Oct. 28th and the Freedom of the City for the fillies set to run on Oct. 29th.
The Track on 2…
More than 400 people turned out for Sunday’s exhibition card of harness racing at The Track on 2, formerly known as Alberta Downs. There was no gaming on site because the cost to provide it for a one day meet was prohibitive. But the folks who turned out had a good time and the horsemen certainly supported the entry box.
“I give the new owners full marks for effort,” said racing secretary, Raeann Gemmell. “It was a pretty good racing surface, considering it had seen almost no traffic all summer. I know Fred (Gillis) spent half a day on a tractor on Saturday, the day before racing, to help get it ready. It’s what we do.”
It’ll be interesting to see how active the new owners, Kurt Belich and Ross Morrison, would like to be in the industry. The early buzz is that they would like to be active and that they would like to sit down with horsemens’ groups and with Horse Racing Alberta to see how best to fit in.
It was a great way for trainers to keep their stock racing. Now comes the move up the highway to Northlands Park in Edmonton for the opening of the fall racing meet on Friday evening.
Two initiatives are underway at the national level that will be relevant in this province. Doug Fensky, Manager of Racing, Supervision, & Security, is part of a national panel looking to create one rulebook for use across the country in harness racing. At the moment, there is often five different ways of dealing with an infraction, depending upon which jurisdiction is involved. The pending introduction of legislation on the recreational use of cannabis might be the trigger that gets one set of rules of racing for all parts of Canada.
Standardbred Canada is reporting on a second initiative as well. Horsepeople across Canada are advised that accounting firm MNP are offering a webinar with respect to proposed tax changes and their potential implications on agricultural businesses on Tuesday, September 19 at 12:00 noon Eastern.
The webinar, led by MNP’s Ron Friesen, CPA, CA, Partner – Taxation, will last one hour and will be presented in English. There is no cost to register.
For further details and to register, please visit this link.
Canada Sports Hall of Fame member, Sandy Hawley, will be on hand on Wednesday morning at 10 o’clock to help inaugurate a new exhibit dedicated to the horse in Canada. He’ll be joined by a number of fellow members, including Tom Gayford and Jim Elder, members of the Olympic gold medal show jumping team in Mexico City in 1968. Also expected to attend is Hall of Fame member, Marg Southern, co-founder, with her late husband, Ron, of Spruce Meadows. The event is at 10 AM Wednesday. The inter-active exhibit will be on display for five years and contains a number of items from racing, eventing, chuckwagon racing, etc. For those who have not visited the Hall, you’ll find it at Canada Olympic Park on the western outskirts of Calgary… there’s an original set of 24 Stampede Futurity collector plates up for auction Saturday at Frank McInenly Auction Services in High River. It would be a nice addition to the trophy room of a thoroughbred collector.