Stronger fields, higher wagering, and the emergence of new stars are the headlines as the Alberta thoroughbred community celebrated the end to its 2018 racing season on the weekend at Century Downs. “Last season we averaged 6.6 starters per race,” said general manager, Paul Ryneveld. “This year that number is 7.6 starters per race. Our goal is to get to eight and beyond. That makes it more interesting for the bettors and leads to added pari-mutuel wagering. Our betting is up about 10% on a day to day comparison with last year. That’s a good sign too. We had a particularly strong Alberta Fall Classic Day on Sept. 16th.”
“We’ve had some particularly strong stars among the horses, led by Escape Clause. I think we’ll have to look at creating a stars of the week program next year. It’s done in other sports. We are no different, and we need to make sure the public is aware of some of the great athletes we have. It will help our marketing and it will help build public awareness of what we have to offer. Frankly, the only thing I would change would be the weather for some of our race days. We weren’t helped by the snowfall we got in October.”
The weather was just fine for the final weekend – a bit breezy – but sunny, which led to some great racing. Saturday’s Freedom of the City for the 2 year old fillies was won by the favourite, Summerland. But it took a spirited effort in the final quarter to outlast the Greg Tracy – trained Im Evin Im Leavin.
“I was really pleased,” Tracy told me. “Rico (Walcott) thought he had a chance to pull off the upset but just fell short.” Summerland, with veteran west coast rider, Richard Hamel at the controls, pulled away in deep stretch to win by three lengths.
Sunday’s 22nd running of the Canadian Juvenile for 2 year old colts and geldings featured a stirring stretch run between two members of the powerful Riversedge Racing Stable from Okotoks. Purple Storm, with Walcott in charge, took the inside route to edge Smarty River Pants at the wire. It was the first loss for the homebred in five lifetime starts.
“It would have been nice to keep the winning streak going, but if you’re going to get beat, it might as well be by another of your own horses,” Riversedge co-owner, Robert Vargo, told me in the winner’s circle. Purple Storm, in just his third lifetime start, now has two wins and career earnings of almost $56,000.
Walcott scored six wins on the 12-race card on the final day to easily win the award as top rider of the meet. He finished with 35 wins from 119 rides, twelve wins more than Rigo Sarmiento. Walcott’s horses earned $301,494 in purses.
The trainers’ race came down to the wire between Tim Rycroft and Craig Smith. Rycroft’s win in Race 11 with Spring in Alberta left the two men tied with 17 wins apiece, atop the standings. Rycroft saddled 104 starters and Smith had 93.
The leading owner was Riversedge which added the Canadian Juvenile Stakes to a long list of achievements for the season. Owners Norm Castiglione and Robert Vargo posted a 13-7-8 log from 55 starters and earned $205,393 during the meet. “It certainly validates the approach we’ve taken and the hard work done by our staff,” said Castiglione. “We’ve made a considerable investment in racing and it’s great to see this return.”
Ryneveld leaves no doubt that the commitment to continue growing the business will continue into 2019. “I hope we can get the Harvest Plate into the books as a Graded Stake,” he told me. “We’re at the minimum purse level of $100,000 for the race but there are some other criteria we need to meet to get the attention of the Jockey Club of Canada, which decides on graded status. One of those criteria is improved quality of horses which race in that event. Even achieving a Gr. 3 status would help us attract more higher quality horses.”
Transition to Harness…
Not long after the last horse got back to the barns, Don Monkman’s crew had the graders rolling to strip the thoroughbred surface and prepare for a fall-winter harness meet which begins Saturday and which will stretch into January. The safety rail was to be removed on Monday. Thoroughbred horses were to be moved out of the backstretch Monday and Tuesday, bound for farms and tracks as far away as Texas, Arizona and California. Others will get a break until training begins again in the new year. Meanwhile, the harness horses will be moved into the barn complex as early as Tuesday. Racing secretary, Jackson Wittup, expects to have about 225 stalls in use by the time the meet opens. The track should be ready for training by Thursday morning, perhaps a day earlier, depending upon how the conversion work goes.
And the fall meet will get off to a rousing start with finals of the Alberta Marquis Stakes for 3 year old Alberta-bred fillies, and divisions of the Alberta Stardust for 2 year old fillies on Saturday. Sunday will see the boys get their turn in the final of the Alberta Maverick for 3 year olds and in divisions of the Alberta Shooting Star Stakes for the 2 year olds. All those races are qualifiers for the highlight day of the fall season, Nov. 17th, which will be Super Finals Day at Century Downs. A total of $360,000 for the eight races that are part of Super Finals will be up for grabs that day.
Cusdmagicdragon, Born A Dragon and Blink And Gone won eliminations of the Alberta Marquis last Friday night at Northlands Park, so they’ll be three names to keep an eye on, in Saturday’s final. Paradise Hill, Tap The Keg, and Exit Smiling each won an elimination of the Alberta Plainsman Saturday at Northlands, so they’ll be worthy of watching in the series finale this Sunday afternoon. A reminder that post-times for the harness meet will be at 12:45 PM, a half hour earlier than usual.