Like an unwanted guest who has lingered its stay far too long, winter held Edmonton in its snarling teeth refusing to shake it loose.
But, at long last, opening day of thoroughbred racing is upon us with the starting gates at Northlands clamouring open at 1 p.m. on Saturday with the sun promising to be the other kind of guest - the one we all anticipate and hope never leaves.
Northlands had planned on opening Friday but that card vanished because of a lack of entrants which in turn was due to a poor racing surface that prevented horses from working until just a few days ago.
The recent dumps of heavy, wet snow certainly didn’t help matters.
“I figured it would be tight getting enough horses to run two cards on opening weekend because we haven’t been able to work for three weeks,” said trainer Rick Hedge.
“But we’re racing Saturday so at least that’s a start.”
Last Friday one exercise rider quipped that the track was good: “If you are planting potatoes.”
But by Sunday the deep, dark goo was much more manageable.
“It’s improved bit by bit every day,” said one of Northlands leading jockeys, Quincy Welch.
“The track was deep in some spots, shallow in others; it wasn’t pretty,” said Hedge. “Saturday was still terrible but on Sunday it was quite decent.”
Testimony to the improved conditions was on full display this past weekend with 106 horses working Saturday and then 128 thoroughbreds on the clock on Sunday.
Sunday’s times clearly showed the improvement with Storm’s Battle working three furlongs in 35 seconds flat for trainer Alfred Webster; Pacioretty black lettering four furlongs in :47 4/5 and Clear the Runway getting five furlongs in :59 4/5 - just a tick faster than Candy Alley who was sent out by Ernie Keller.
To repair two sizeable depressions including one by the sixteenth pole the track was closed Monday and Tuesday.
“When those are fixed we’ll have a solid track that will be ready to go on Saturday,” said Northlands racing manager Scott Sinclair.
All 10 races on Saturday, which will also include the simulcast of the Kentucky Derby, will be just three and a half furlongs.
Next week Northlands is hopeful of carding six-furlong races.
“We’re definitely excited,” said Sinclair.
“We’re really concentrating on making the guest experience better.
“We’ve got a new food and beverage manager, Steve Holly, and he’ll be adding new menu items.”
Even better, my own personal favourite from the past is returning: Terri’s Sandwich shop. When I covered the races every day for The Journal and the Daily Racing Form I almost exclusively ate there and never got tired of the made-to-order sandwiches.
“It’s a short meet but it’s going to be a great meet,” Sinclair said of the 54-day stint that runs from Friday to Sept. 16 with the thoroughbreds then scheduled to move on to Century Downs at Balzac for 14 days.
“We’re ready to roll,” said Keller, who trained in Osoyoos in southern B.C. again this winter and who watched his big horse Killin Me Smalls roll four furlongs in 49 4/5 on Saturday.
Entries for the weekend will be taken Tuesday.
The jockey colony looks very strong with the usual suspects like Welch, Rico Walcott, Dane Nelson, Keishan Balgobin and Shannon Beauregard all set to return.
But there will also be some new faces. Kyle Carter, who last rode here four years ago and was the leading idea in Barbados in 2015, has come back to Alberta. Chris Husbands, the leading rider in Winnipeg two years ago, and Renaldo Cumberbatch, are here for at least the first weekend but could return too Winnipeg when that track reopens next week.
Furthermore there is a raft of apprentice riders on board.
Isabelle Wenc, who was injured but now healthy, and Rey Williams will be joined by the likes of Lenny Seecharan, who has arrived from Trinidad and Brandon Duchaine, who raced last year in Ontario.
Keishan Balbobin’s cousin, Ridge, who was the leading apprentice in Trinidad last year, hadn’t arrived in Alberta yet but is expected shortly.
“It’s going to be a real strong jock’s room,” predicted Bob Fowlis, the agent for Walcott, Balgobin and Carter.
“I can’t remember a time when we had five apprentices.”
Returning, in a sense, is trainer Robertino Diodoro. The fourth-leading trainer in North America last year - currently third in the North American standings this year - Diodoro, who got his start in Alberta, is sending some 20 horses to Edmonton which will be under the care of one of Diodoro’s many assistants, Bob Jackson.
Now with 130 horses scattered across the continent including Belmont, New York where his first starter came home a winner a few days ago, Diodoro said he is sending “a little bit of everything. I’ll probably send a few more to Edmonton when the races stretch out to a mile and longer.
One of the horses Diodoro was pondering sending to Edmonton was Inside Straight, who ran fourth in last year’s Canadian Derby.
But that changed in a heart beat when Inside Straight won the Grade 2 $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap for owner Randy Howg, who has been a client for 23 years.
Defeating, among others Grade I winner Midnight Storm, Inside Straight’s plans have naturally changed.
“Now I’m looking to run him in the Met Mile at Belmont on June 10,” he said of the historic Grade I Metropolitan Handicap that has been won by the likes of great horses like Forego, Kelso and Native Dancer and more recently Frosted, Honor Code, and Palace Malice.
“Awesome,” was how Diodoro summed up Inside Straight’s win in the Oaklawn Handicap, where he was boxed in at the five-sixteenths pole but shook loose to win by a comfortable two lengths.
“And he’s been training real good. He just seems to be getting better and better.”
Northlands leading trainer Greg Tracy is, as usual, armed and loaded.
“I have lots to enter,” said Tracy, who, last week, sent out both Ruffenuff and Fall At Last to a pair of victories at Hastings Park in Vancouver, B.C.
Fall At Last, who won last year’s Edmonton Juvenile by 12 and a half lengths, won by seven and a half lengths, while Ruffenuff, who was undefeated in three starts - all stakes - at Northlands last year, got up in the final strides.
Tracy, who has around 70 horses in his barn, will, for the first time, also keep a string of 20 horses in B.C.
Beginning next week Northlands will race Fridays and Saturdays for the first several weeks - post time 6:30 on Fridays and 1 p.m. on Saturdays. In June Northlands will also add Wednesday cards. Saturday’s opening card will also have a promotion where someone will win a travel voucher for a Mexican vacation from Flight Centre.
Saturday. Can hardly wait.
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