Given a recent visit to Century Mile I thought it was time to do an update on the new track which, despite many people saying it would never happen, will definitely open next spring. It started as a short story but it quickly got long.
With steel-toed shoes, safety goggles, an orange and lime vest and a hard hat I was able to tour the facility with several horsemen and Kevan Schell, casino manager for Century Mile which is located by the International Airport, RedTail Landing golf course and the Premier Collection Outlet Mall. “We’re on schedule to open the racino April 1 of next year,” said Schell, noting that spring training will begin March 1 and May 4 - Kentucky Derby Day - the scheduled first day of racing. “I think everyone will be impressed with the end product.”
One of the two 400-stall barns is almost completed. The one-mile racing surface - the only one west of Toronto - is well underway and will be completed before the snow falls (an ugly thought). Paving for 1,100 parking spots - there will also be an overflow lot for another 2,200 cars - is well underway. And construction continues on the racino itself.
Paul Ryneveld, who is the general manager at Century Downs in Balzac and who will also be the general manager at Century Mile, said the racing surface will be similar to Century Downs. “We’ve started putting down the first layer - putting down the fabric so that nothing foreign comes up from the soil - and the drainage system. “Then we’ll add seven inches of drainage rock and another layer of fabric. Then we’ll put down the standardbred surface. The thoroughbred surface goes on top of that.”
Steve Wood, the guru of race track superintendents, has been hired as a consultant and Ryneveld said Wood has really liked what he has seen. “Steve, who was the superintendent at tracks like Del Mar and Santa Anita in California, is a consultant on racetracks around the world. Even in his quote, unquote retirement he’s still doing the tracks on the California Fair circuit.”
Also passing along his knowledge is Ron Grift, who used to keep Northlands racing surface in top condition. “Ron was here about a month ago to check on the grading and I anticipate him coming up again before the standardbred cushion is put down and then again when the thoroughbred cushion is laid down,” said Ryneveld. “Ron and Steve have both been great resources.”
While the location is a long way from Northlands and the City centre, Ryneveld said that south-west Edmonton is where the City is growing the most. “I believe people are going to make the trip to the airport to watch horse racing. I firmly believe it will revitalize the business. We will work together to grow the industry. Or perhaps a better term is regrow it. The business was there at one point,” he said of Northlands once having the highest per capita betting in all of North America.
“We feel that from a patronage perspective we will be busy for racing and busy on non racing days. We believe that the move from Northlands will show similar results to what is happening at Century Downs,” he said of the track which is well north of Calgary’s City centre. "We’re in our fourth year at Century Downs and we’ve grown the racing handle every year.”
As of July 1, the live handle at Century Downs is up 25 per cent over last year; the overall live and simulcast is up 18 per cent. And last year they were up 12 per cent on the overall live and simulcast wagering numbers over the previous year. Slot machine revenue at Century Downs also continues to grow and Ryneveld said he expects big numbers at Century Mile.
Unlike Northlands, which has several nearby competitors for slot machine revenue, Century Mile and its 550 slot machines goes into a largely untapped, unserviced market with its nearest competition, River Cree and Argyll Road casinos some 30 kilometres away.
“From a gaming perspective we will produce better numbers at Century Mile than what Northlands does,” said Ryneveld. “That will add to the purses.” While slots are, perhaps unfortunately, vital to the success of any racino these days, Ryneveld said Century Mile will be a racetrack first and a slot-parlour casino second.
“We’re a racetrack with a casino. Not the other way around,” said Ryneveld.
The main structure of Century Mile is 88,000 square feet. Of that, 63,000 square feet is devoted to horse racing. As well as the slot parlour on the main level there will also be full-size restaurants and bars, a sports-viewing lounge as well as a 60-seat, Off-Track Betting centre for off-track wagering. The second level will also have an OTB - this one capable of holding well over 150 bettors.
The second level will have a multi-purpose room, a private function area and three suites which will seat over 80 people in each suite or that can be opened to one 260-seat area. Each suite has its own balcony. Ryneveld believes they will be full every racing day. The second floor is also where there will be a 260-seat dining room and 400 bleacher seats.
This is the only flaw - and it’s not a small one - I can see at Century Mile. I don’t believe it is near large enough. At Northlands Colours Restaurant seats 660 people. “But how often is that full?” asked Ryneveld. The answer, according to Northlands Racing Manager Scott Sinclair, is more than Century Mile appears to be anticipating.
“We’re full 45 per cent of the time,” said Sinclair. “We average 450 people every race day. Even on a crummy Wednesday night we’ll have 250 people sitting in Colours.”
Last year Geoff Smith, managing director for Century Casino’s Alberta Operations, was quoted in this space as saying “Century Mile is built to to readily expand within it’s four walls… We can always add bleachers. We can also open up the infield the way Northlands does for the Derby.”
I’d say expand now. The last thing Century Mile needs is to turn away people from being able to get a seat in the restaurant. Especially in its formative years.
Ryneveld is “bullish” on horse racing. With good reason. While attendance and wagering is no where close to what it used to be in Northlands’ glory days, there certainly appears to be a rejuvenation of horse racing across North America.
On my twitter account - @CurtisJStock - I update a list of ‘Why horse racing isn’t dead.’ Here’s are a few cases in point:
- Wagering from all-sources on the Kentucky Derby Day program totalled a record $225.7 million while wagering on just the Derby itself was a record $149 million.
- Despite all the rain and fog, wagering on the Preakness was still a record $61.97 million.
- The all sources handle on the Belmont card was $137,954,895 - the second highest wagering total in New York Racing Association history. Attendance was 90,327.
- At Oaklawn Park, the Arkansas Derby Day handle of $16,159,771 broke the single-day record by almost $1 million. And that was an 18-year-old record.
- Woodbine’s Queen’s Plate card saw a single-day record of $14,625,552 wagered.
It’s not just the big race days where wagering and attendance are moving forward.
- Monmouth Park in New Jersey is up eight percent in live handle ($11,513,732 total), 10 percent in total handle ($94,574,544 total) and five percent in attendance (254,820 overall) compared to the similar juncture a year ago. And that was despite poor weather for most of May when 73 per cent of scheduled turf races had to be moved to the main track.
- Del Mar California was up 8 per cent in total wagering and 9 per cent in attendance during it’s first five days. On opening day alone, the handle was $16,131,880 - up 14 per cent from a year ago.
- Opening day at Saratoga saw an all-sources handle of $20,247,319 - the second consecutive season that wagering exceeded this milestone figure. On track $5,403,833 was wagered which was an increase of nearly eight per cent over last year.
- Over 1 Billion dollars were wagered at the 102-day Santa Anita winter/spring meet - an increase of 8 per cent.
- Oaklawn ended up 11 per cent in wagering.
On and on it goes.
Even at Northlands, while all sources wagering is down 5.6 per cent this year, the live handle is up almost nine percent. “Horse racing was slow to adjust to alternate forms of gambling,” said Ryneveld. “The ones that figured out how to develop racing fans and horse players are (doing well). “I believe that in the last 5 years there have been a lot of positives in North America where racing is coming back into vogue. It takes some thinking - trying some new things and going with the ones that are working.”
Asked about marketing of Century Mile, Ryneveld summed it up in one word: “Aggressive. It will be very similar to what we are doing in Century Downs. We’ll have giveaways - large money or vehicles - and create events around the horse racing. In Calgary we sponsor the penalty kill for the Calgary Flames. Anytime the Flames score short-handed we give away packages to Century Downs. We also sponsor the Calgary Stampeders’ touchdown horse, Quick Six, and we sponsored a chuckwagon tarp - Chance Bensmiller’s wagon outfit - during the Calgary Stampede.
“We are looking at similar sponsorship with the Edmonton Oilers and Edmonton Eskimos at Century Mile. We’re going to push the gaming but we are really going to push the racing product. My wife’s friend lives in Edmonton. When Northlands made the announcement that they were getting out of horse racing she thought that was it. She didn’t know there was still racing at Northlands.”
‘She’ wasn’t alone. “I think a lot of people felt the same. That went those announcements went out people assumed racing was gone in Edmonton.” While Aug. 25 will be the last Canadian Derby at Northlands, Ryneveld doesn’t see it at all as the last Canadian Derby. “We’d really like to see the Canadian Derby continue and continue to grow. But you can’t just promote only the Derby. You also have to have other events that are prominent.
“We are so much further ahead at Century Mile than we were at Century Downs on things like the paving, getting the track down and constructing the barns. It seems like everything is coming together much better. We’re getting ready to rock and roll.”
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