So we will have a new horse racing facility - Century Mile - in 2018. Now what?
Will horse racing fans suddenly return in droves simply because there will be a new track? Probably not.
Will more breeders and owners suddenly start reaching deeper? Ditto on the probably not again.
The difference is that it could happen instead of what had been season after season with little optimism in the future. Of all of the problems that horse racing currently has in Alberta the biggest is that most people don’t even know it exists. With the exception of Northlands Friday night Park after Dark promotion and the one-off Canadian Derby, marketing, advertising and promotion of horse racing have been almost nil.
Northlands doesn’t even employ a public relations, advertising, marketing or promotional person specifically for horse racing.
Racing has slipped further and further into the recesses of the subconscious minds of Edmontonians. The place to be on Fridays and Saturdays used to be at Northlands where $1 million was bet virtually every Saturday and close to that on Fridays. And that was when there was no simulcasting. It was all live on-track wagering. And, that was at a time when Northlands charged for admission and charged for parking whereas now it is free.
I know. Those were different times. As well as no simulcasting there weren’t casinos every two blocks and there weren’t VLTS in virtually ever bar. Now there is competition. And lots of it. But how has racing confronted the challenges of alternative forms of gambling? By shrinking further and further into their shells.
Horse racing in Alberta has ceased to be a major player in the sports world in the Edmonton. People used to know the top horses. They knew the top jockeys and trainers. They were stars. If you can believe it, just about every radio station in Edmonton used to carry daily selections and results. I recall two stations - CFCW and CJCA - broadcasting the results after every race. CFRN TV also used to carry the race of the night on their late night sports program. Again, hard to believe. But again, true. Now, only the Edmonton Sun has selections and results.
Furthermore, there used to be promotions once a week at the track whether it was just Ladies Days when there was no admission charge for women and the first 200 or so women all got roses, or giveaways like Wallet Night when everybody who came got a wallet that included a betting voucher, bringing in top jockeys like Sandy Hawley, Ron Turcotte and Bill Shoemaker and the Rocking Chair Derby where former jockeys returned for an exhibition race.
There was also a Win a Horse promotion and there were weekly ethnic food nights in the dining rooms which were then called the Sky Paddock and the Terrace. Virtually every week there was a promotion of one kind or another. At that time Northlands used to have volunteer committees. People like Ernie Smalian, Ted Mildon, Ken and Micky Awid and dozens of others worked long hours with Northlands staff to promote horse racing. That doesn’t exist anymore either.
And there was advertising. Lots and lots of advertising. As a result the average daily wagering on thoroughbred racing in 1981 - yes, a long time ago - was $858,026. And, again, that was all on track and not on any simulcast races. The last promotion of any kind that I can remember at Northlands was the Powder Puff Derby and Northlands didn’t even have anything to do with it. Instead it was put on by people in the backstretch.
Again I digress. Again, I concur that I am talking about a period of time when Edmonton had the highest per capita wagering in all of North America. But here’s the point. The new track to be called Century Mile which will be constructed near the Edmonton International Airport and RedTail Landing golf course offers hope which is something there hasn’t been for a very long time.
But the new operators - Century Casino Inc. - can’t come in and focus only on gaming machines. Horse racing promotion must go hand in hand. There’s obviously still interest in horse racing. Or why else why would seven different groups originally think horse racing can still be viable? With a mile track it will surely attract horses from Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg and Hastings Park in Vancouver.
But the key remains a substantial increase in marketing the product. Not just once a year with the Derby. There is almost no doubt that the gaming machines at Century Mile will be successful given that there is no real competition in the southern area of Edmonton while Northlands is in a pocket where there is lots of competition. The bigger question is can Century Casinos Inc. which runs Century Downs in Balzac - just north of Calgary - do the same for horse racing?
Century Downs opened last year. This year they are up over 20 per cent in handle. Right now Century Casinos Inc., which have proven experience in both gaming and horse racing, are saying all the right things and promising to market and promote. The focus needs to be on horse racing as a sport again in Edmonton as well as on an entertainment option. It’s hardly impossible. Woodbine in Toronto has proven that. So have several other tracks across North America like Del Mar, California.
STOCK REPORT - On Sunday at Remington Park in Oklahoma Canadian Derby winner Ready Intaglio will meet Derby runner-up Solve and fourth-place finisher Inside Straight in the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby.
But those three will face some extremely talented opponents like Fish Trappe Road, who last competed in the Grade I King Bishop and won the Grade 3 Dwyer and was runner-up in the Grade 2 W. Stephen, and Texas Chrome, who exits a win in the Louisiana Super Derby with a 101 Beyer Speed Rating.
Follow me on Twitter at CurtisJStock