Nine long years. A long time to wait for the return of thoroughbred racing to the Calgary market. But the sun poked its face out late morning, and despite a cool breeze an estimated 2,000 fans jammed their way into Century Downs Racetrack & Casino on Saturday afternoon to welcome the breed back into this market.
There were lineups to park, lineups at the betting windows and lineups for food and beverage. Despite that, there were many more smiles than frowns as racing fans met up with olds friends on the tarmac. “We’re looking at the fan experience after the weekend,” General Manager, Paul Ryneveld, told me. Should the barbeque be open? Should we supplement our food service with a food truck or two? I think we need more than one day of racing to evaluate whether we need to make some changes. But I saw a lot of smiles from a lot of people I have not seen here before.”
“And I was particularly pleased with the staging and presentation of the races. Bettors wagered $72,000 on track and $167,000 in total for the first day. We got $25,000 out of California and the tracks there were taking our product for the first time. The only disappointment was that we didn’t do a little better in Ontario. But for a first time effort at a new facility for the breed, I thought the first two days of racing went off very well.”
And the initial feedback from the backstretch was generally positive as well. There had been a fair bit of grumbling at Northlands Park by folks who hadn’t even seen the Century Downs facility. I talked to more than a dozen trainers and jockeys and could not find anyone who had a bad thing to say about the racetrack. It’s a great tribute to track superintendent, Don Monkman and his staff that the racing surface was put down properly, maintained carefully and produced winners from the front end, from off the pace, and from different positions on the starting gate. The wind dried things out fairly quickly and that meant that the water truck got a good workout. The goal is to have a good racetrack for the whole card, not just for the first couple of races. That goal appeared to be achieved on Opening Weekend.
The first win at Century Downs was by a maiden, Aly’s Outlaw, in a time of 1:46.92 for owners B First Racing Stable, Judy Frost, Tim Kane and winning trainer, Jerri Robertson. Robertson added another winner when Roadside Kisses won the 6th race for owners Lesley Hardy and Tim Kane.
“It’s wonderful for some of my owners in southern Alberta to be able to see their horses run without a 4 hour commute each way to Northlands,” Robertson told me. “Brian Hebson of Airdrie owns a piece of Aly’s Outlaw. He’s got two or three grooms and riders living in his house, which will help them settle in for the meet. One of the people at Brian’s is jockey, Larry Munoz, who rode the first winner. The first winner was a maiden. Roadside Kisses got the benefit of a great ride by Rico Walcott and that certainly helped.”
Robertson won two more races on Sunday, scoring with Dense Fog in a $5,000 claimer and with Monumental Max in a surprise in the very next race. So, she’s off to a good start at Century Downs.
But she’s not the leading trainer after the first weekend. That honour belongs to Craig Smith who saddled five winners on Opening Weekend, two on Saturday and three more on Sunday. Saturday, he won Race #3, a $17,500 claimer with Hardly Forgotten. Two races later, Sheep River Bear led a field of $5,000 claimers to the finish line in 1:12.85 for six furlongs. Then on Sunday, Smith and jockey, Rico Walcott, collared the Daily Double with After A Fashion in the first race and Mr. Meaner in the second. Mr. Meaner, a 2 year old gelding, who races for the Alberta Thoroughbred Racing Club, was particularly impressive, scorching a field of five challengers in a snappy :39.3 seconds for three and a half furlongs. Smith added his fifth win with Wilko Say What in Sunday’s fifth race for $6,250 claimers, again with Rico Walcott on board.
“I’m like Jerri, I’m happy to be back racing in the Calgary market,” Smith told me. “I recently bought a farm out just west of Irricana so I’m looking forward to using that as a base for my training operation. For now, I’ll still be training horses at Century Downs.”
“And I really like the racetrack. It’s a good sand base and the material doesn’t come up into the faces of the horses. That’s often a distraction that takes away from their performance. If the workers can keep it maintained and keep pouring the water to it, it will be very good indeed.”
Walcott was the leading rider at Northlands Park this summer and leads all jockeys in western Canada with more than $1 million in purse earnings. He finished Opening Weekend with 4 wins. Dane Nelson shares top spot in the jockeys’ standings thanks to 3 wins on Saturday and another win on Sunday.
And one other note from Opening Day…
One of the first people I saw during a visit to the backstretch on Saturday morning was veteran trainer, R.A. “Red” McKenzie. Here’s a man who was the leading rider in Calgary in 1946. Seventy-one years later, he’s still at the barn every morning to take care of his horses. He drove in to Century Downs Saturday morning at 6:30. By 2:20 that afternoon, he had to find his way to the winner’s circle after Long Time Don won a $3,000 claimer over seven furlongs. It was a nice nod to racing history and a cheque that will pay for a good dinner.
Brian Leavitt Memorial…
A lot of the thoroughbred racing community in southern Alberta is expected to gather at Century Downs next Saturday for a memorial race in honour of Brian Leavitt. The long time Stampede Park official lost a battle with cancer last November 16th on his 69th birthday.
“He was an assistant racing secretary for me when I worked at Stampede Park,” recalled Jackson Wittup. “He served as a horse identifier for both thoroughbred and Standardbred and also served as a paddock judge. I suspect a lot of folks with whom he worked will be on hand this coming Saturday. I expect his widow, Lori, and his daughter, Sarah, will be on hand as well.”
Olds College Racetrack Programs…
Theresa Sealy, who co-ordinates the racetrack programs, is sending out a call for help in keeping these important development programs alive.
“We graduated eleven people from the certified race horse groom training program in the spring,” she told me. Ten of them have found jobs in the industry. I want to take eight students for the grooms program and eight students for the exercise rider program in the next term. But to do that, we’re trying to find some dollars to help supplement tuition costs for students. We’ll take cash or gifts in kind, such as equipment, vet services, or animals. Charitable tax receipts are available for cash donations and gifts in kind that qualify.”
“This program has been in place since 2003 and has produced a number of much needed and well trained personnel for our industry. We need some help to keep it going.”
Karen & Nathan Sobey have decided to campaign Prince Sharka during the fall harness season to raise funds for “Little Warriors.” It’s a wonderful program that deals with child sex abuse prevention and education in the Edmonton area. Sharka, who earned a warrior’s reputation for his battle back from injuries suffered last December, is the perfect horse for this program… quarter horse trainer, William Leach, was among interested spectators at Saturday’s Opening Day. He tells me he’s got a couple of speedy steeds, True Copy and Strip Steak in training for next Saturday’s Futurity Trials at Century Downs. True Copy set the track record for 300 yards at Grande Prairie this summer. “I particularly like the fact we can race 440 yards on the straightaway here at Century Downs,” he told me… racing bodies will come together on October 7th to honour some of the pioneers of the sport. Then on October 15th, it’s Horses, Hats & Hope Day, featuring the “C-Cup” Classic. The seven horse field will match thoroughbreds and quarter horses along with male and female riders to raise funds for breast cancer research. The following Sunday, October 22nd will be “Dress Derby Style” day, featuring the Harvest Plate.