Monday, 23 March 2015 10:28

The Spotlight Shines On Canada’s Newest Racetrack

Written by Chris Lomon/Standardbred Canada
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It’s been a long windy road, but for horsemen in Alberta, the journey will soon all be worth it. Century Downs, Canada’s newest racetrack, is scheduled to open in Calgary. And hopes are very high.

Liken it to harness racing terminology, and the journey to see Century Downs Racetrack and Casino in Balzac, Alberta reach the finish line has indeed been a rough, parked-out trip. But, for those behind the site that will see live standardbred racing leave the gate in April, 2015, patience, perseverance and unwavering belief has resulted in a hard-fought and cherished victory.

An open-length triumph it was not. Not even close Paul Ryneveld will tell you.

Yet, for one of the driving forces behind the much-ballyhooed racino that stands less than two kms north of the city limits of Calgary and nine kms from the Calgary International Airport, there is a sense of great pride and accomplishment in seeing the dream of Canada's newest racetrack become a reality.

“The commitment of the original United Horsemen of Alberta (UHA) must be acknowledged for keeping this project going when it appeared lost,” said Ryneveld, General Manager of Century Downs. “Century Casino's arrival ensured that the project would be completed. When the first race takes place in 2015, there will be a lot of people to recognize and thank. I think the thing to be most proud of is the finished product - a modern, right-sized facility, where horse racing and gaming can grow together.”

Century Downs Racetrack and Casino will include a 1.1 kilometre (approx 7/10ths of a mile) racetrack, and 30,000-square-foot racing entertainment centre with a gaming floor, 550 gaming machines, a bar, lounge, and restaurant, and off-track betting area.

The track will not only host thoroughbred and standardbred racing, but also have a 400-yard chute for quarter horse races.

The destination will no doubt be a boon for a province that has seen horse racing suffer through tumultuous times in recent years. Stampede Park, a venue that once regularly attracted 20,000 fans during its heyday, shut down seven years ago, running its last race (thoroughbreds) on June 15, 2008, Father's Day.

While live racing has endured at Edmonton's Northlands Park, there was a push by several parties to bring the action to the southern part of the province.

It's been an 11-year venture to see it come to fruition, one fraught with ups and downs, delays, question marks, and at times, great uncertainty.

The initial blueprint called for a racetrack to be built alongside Highway 2, one of the busiest thruways in Canada. More than $130 million in infrastructure was invested into the plan that would include teaming up with the popular CrossIron Mills outlet mall destination.

That plan, in 2006, spearheaded by Max Gibb, one of the most successful and influential horsemen in Alberta over the past 10 years, dried up, literally, at least for an extended period of time. A major water issue, specifically, that there wasn't enough of it in the province back then.

No money meant no loan.

Two years later, the recession struck and the group lost financing for the project. Gibb, a former champion boxer, and others, however, refused to throw in the towel.

Five years ago, the UHA joined forces with Century Casino.

Founded in 1992, Century Casinos is an international casino entertainment company that focuses on investing in, developing and operating regional mid-size casinos world-wide.

It turned out to be a match made in horse racing heaven.

And now, the twists and turns that once hampered the project, many of which threatened to derail that dream, are now a thing of the past.

For Fred Gillis, Alberta Standardbred Horse Association's racing manager, it remains difficult to convey just what Century Downs represents for the Alberta and Canadian racing industries.

“It's hard to express in words what Century Downs means to those involved in standardbred breeding and racing in Alberta,” said Gillis. “For about the last 10 years, we have scratched and clawed and improvised to keep standardbred racing alive in our province. Relegated to small town venues in the summer and the dead of winter at Northlands in Edmonton - most would not have given us any odds for survival.

“Faced with extinction, the true grit of Alberta standardbred horse people surfaced,” he continued. “We worked on promotions to triple our handle in the small-town tracks, while winning a steady following of new fans. We developed a group of young drivers and trainers that is second to none in Canada and we continued to improve our Alberta-bred bloodstock. Century Downs will anchor the southern Alberta end of a strong Calgary/Edmonton circuit, giving race fans in Alberta and throughout Canada top-notch standardbred, thoroughbred, and quarter-horse racing.”

The racetrack in Balzac will be the sixth track in Alberta. Others include Alberta Downs in Lacombe, Evergreen Park in Grande Prairie, Northlands Park in Edmonton, and the Rocky Mountain Turf Club in Lethbridge.

“We will be doing a few push promotions leading up to our first official weekend of live horse racing,” noted Janette Ahrens, Marketing Manager, Century Downs. “These promotions will include contest opportunities to win a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility, and early sign-up incentives for our Winners' Zone Membership. However, for the most part, we are working on a long-term marketing plan that will foster continuous and sustainable growth in our race day attendance by educating those new to horse racing, and providing relevant and up-to-date content for our existing race fans.

“Developing customizable visitor-experience packages is key for us, whether it's a behind-the-scenes tour, an exclusive dinner and cocktail evening overlooking the track, or a bachelor party day-at-the races package,” she continued. “Our facility is unique in that we have the ability to cater to a broad audience demographic.”

What is Ahrens most looking forward to as live standardbred racing draws closer?

“The anticipation and excitement of race days,” she said. “I'm most looking forward to the buzz of the building as we prepare for our race day events.”

Jackson Wittup has moved from British Columbia to Alberta to become racing secretary at Century Downs.

The former Executive Director for Harness Racing B.C. is hopeful the new racetrack will reignite passion for the industry, while putting fans in the stands on a consistent basis.

“Both the standardbred and thoroughbred horsemen have gone through a lot of pain over the last eight years and I can only hope that Century Downs will be able to reward them for their wait,” said Wittup. “Having talked to Chris Roberts (General Manager with Northlands Park, a dual breed horse racing track and casino), they are excited to see racing return to the Calgary market as the fan base and owner base for racing should grow, which is also very positive for them. Of course, everyone is concerned with the impact of the low oil prices, but we are all hoping that racing can return to some form of the 'good old days.'”

A positive sign that the 'good old days' is indeed a distinct possibility was the increase in horse sales and breeding numbers that came out of 2014.

“I'm hoping that Century Downs will finally give both standardbred and thoroughbred racing some long needed stability in Alberta,” offered Wittup. “I haven't followed the thoroughbred industry as closely as the standardbreds, but you can see where the breeding numbers have increased and new stallions are being brought into the province. In general, you see an upbeat attitude.”

ASHA President, Norm Kennedy was quick to confirm the positivity, and praised the great efforts being made by everyone involved in the project.

“I'm most proud of the calibre and professionalism of the people we have worked with from Century Downs, like Erwin Haitzmann, Andreas Terler and others,” said Kennedy. “They have shown tremendous interest in this project and have surrounded themselves with good people on the racing side.

“All of it makes you believe we're sure to have a very, very good operation here. The purses are very good and the future looks pretty damn good.”

Establishing the track as a major player on the Canadian racing scene is key for Ryneveld.

“From a purse distribution standpoint, we believe that Alberta can become the second best daily distribution behind the WEG (Woodbine Entertainment Group) tracks (Woodbine and Mohawk) for both breeds,” he said. “Century Downs opening and operating could allow purses to increase to record levels in Alberta. This is not going to happen overnight and will take a number of years of growth to achieve. We believe the return of live horse racing, our location in the Calgary market, plus Century's commitment to excellent service and guest experience, will lead to success in this goal.”

Ryneveld also knows there is still much work to be done in achieving such stature.

“Century Downs is a modern facility that synergizes the racing and gaming experience rather than separating it,” he noted. “We are incorporating as much technology as is available to improve the wagering experience for bettors and fans with the goal of lessening queues at the betting window as well as lessening the learning curve or intimidation factor to newer race goers.

“For horsepeople, we will be modern and operationally efficient. Originally, we were going to be ship in only, but we have since modified plans with both our standardbred and thoroughbred partners to provide stabling and training. The barn area will be a work in progress as we increase stall capacity over the next two years.”

Gillis pondered the idea of just who might be taking up residence in those stalls, perhaps a horse that could be held in the same regard as some of Canada's most accomplished champions.

“We have driven with great tenacity towards the light that is Century Downs,” offered Gillis. “Now, we open a new, wide door, full of opportunity. The benefits to the province include extra revenue to use for education, health care, and other services in Alberta, direct and spin-off employment both at the track and on our breeding farms and training centres. For the country, it means a new group of owners looking to excite North America with the next On The Road Again, Matts Scooter, Ron's Girl, etc.”

Ryneveld can always look to the words found on his Twitter account for inspiration, a page that proudly displays an image of the Alberta Provincial Shield.

It reads: 25 years in the racing industry. Horse Racing is a passion. Keeping it current is a mission. Continuing to reinvent it is an ever elusive goal.

Ryneveld and the many others behind Canada's newest racetrack aren't soon to forget that.

Follow Century Downs' progress on Twitter @CenturyDowns.

(Reposted from Standardbred Canada website - original link)

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