- Calgary's first horse-racing venue in nearly seven years, set for next month
Jackson Wittup wasn’t sure he’d ever see this day.
For 25 years, writing races at Stampede Park was his passion, right up until the day in 2006 harness racing died in southern Alberta.
Two years later, the thoroughbreds followed.
It’s been close to seven years since a horse race was run in the area, and it’s left a void in many lives — as well as bank accounts.
But now, with Century Downs set to open north of Calgary next month — the track and casino located just east of CrossIron Mills has April 25 slated for its first day of racing — that void, the one that forced so many within the horse-racing industry to either relocate or get out of the business altogether, is about to be filled.
“I wrote the last race that was written at Stampede Park and I’ll be writing the first race that’s written in 2015,” Wittup, racing manager at Century Downs, beamed this week.
“It’s just amazing there’s been no major racing in the Calgary area. It’s just baffling that there hasn’t been any horse racing in southern Alberta.”
Many were baffled at the decision by Stampede Park to close its doors then, and many still are.
But that’s the past.
Even the numerous delays and financial problems incurred on the Century Downs project are in the rear-view — it was first proposed in 2007 — and the $24-million track and casino is as close as it’s ever been to reality, with the top surface on the race track being installed Monday.
More importantly, the finishing touches were recently put on a five-year contract with the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association to guarantee harness racing through the rest of the decade.
The thoroughbreds are expected to join them in 2016.
It’s already caused a rejuvenation within the horse-racing industry in this province.
“To be honest, it’s one of our downfalls,” said veteran driver/trainer Gerry Hudon, who has been sitting behind race horses for 30 years.
“When Calgary closed it hurt a lot of people in the racing industry.
“We went from racing probably 160 days down to 80. It hurts. It hurts your pocketbook, it hurts everything.
“I think everybody’s looking forward to being there and racing and getting things back rolling. Calgary was such a big part of our lives and everybody else’s life that was in the horse-racing industry and now it’s going to be back going.”
The new venue isn’t just a spot for hardcore horse racing fans to spend their weekends — Century Downs plans to run every Saturday and Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m., with a Friday race being added in June at 5:30 p.m. to take advantage of longer daylight hours — as the casino, off-track betting, and restaurant portion are expected to draw casual fans up Deerfoot.
The timing of the new track couldn’t be better for rising star Travis Cullen, who just recently bought a house in Airdrie, a stone’s throw from his new racing home.
Recently named the ASHA’s trainer of the year and driver of the year at the tender age of 22, Cullen couldn’t be more excited.
“Horsemen have kind of been down in the dumps because they’ve been talking about it and it never actually happened,” said Cullen, who moved to Alberta from Manitoba four years ago and has 20 horses in the area.
“Now that it’s actually happening, there have been a lot of smiles on people’s faces.”
With Northlands Park Racetrack and Casino in Edmonton essentially shouldering the brunt of the province’s entire racing industry, the QEII horse racing pipeline is about to reopen for business, finally giving horsemen an option in the province’s biggest market.
Hudon, 50, expects the talent, which had dispersed into other parts of the country when Stampede Park closed, to return, as well.
“You’ve gotta have promotions and you’ve gotta have the want to get people there,” Hudon said. “Northlands, the last year or two years, has kind of slacked off on that and you can see it on a lot of people coming to the races. If you start getting the people there and the purse money goes up for races, you’re going to get good trainers and good drivers start floating back into Alberta.
“I know I can’t wait to get started. I was out there and had a look at it and, I think, it’s just going to be a first-class facility with a great race track.
“It’s going to bring new blood into the sport.”
Cullen is proof of that.
“I kind of just moved around before,” Cullen said. “Wherever there was racing, I went. I almost moved to Ontario last year but I never did do it. I really like it in Alberta, that’s why I stuck it out here. With a new track opening now, it’s going to be great.”
According to Wittup, who has spent 40 years in the sport and moved to Fraser Downs as racing director when Stampede Park closed, the cash flow is going to be significant right off the bat.
“We’re going to be giving away somewhere around $50,000 a day in purses to what we call overnight horses, horses that are just racing,” Wittup said. “Alberta then has a very extensive stakes program for mostly two and three-year-old horses all summer, so we’ll have some $75,000 races.
“Everything that Stampede Park used to have money-wise is just about on par with the opening here April 25.”