As a former jockey, longtime trainer Rick Hedge knows what Century Mile’s one mile circumference is going to mean when the new track makes its much anticipated opening on Sunday. “If jockeys aren’t patient, if they don’t wait until they get to the head of the lane to make their moves their horses will be walking backwards coming to the wire because they’ll be so tired,” said Hedge of the track which is located close to the International Airport.
While Alberta Downs in Lacombe is a mile track, Century Mile is the only Class A one-mile track in Canada outside of Toronto’s Woodbine. “I’ve ridden on a lot of mile tracks and it’s a different game. Now the quarter pole is just before the head of the lane. At Northlands the quarter pole was on the backstretch before the final turn. If the jockeys make their moves where the quarter pole used to be they’ll be toast.”
Because of the configuration of Century Mile with turns that are a little tighter than at most mile tracks the stretch is particularly long. “It’s one heck of a long lane,” said Hedge. “I’m sure there are going to be some goof-ups until the riders figure it out.”
Hedge said the one-mile track will make for better racing. “Hell yeah,” said Hedge, 70, who was one of Alberta’s top riders during the 20 years he spent in the saddle before becoming a trainer 30 years ago. “Every horse will have more of a chance on a mile track because they won’t get in as much trouble. On a mile track you get banged around a lot less than on a five-eighths mile track,” said Hedge, who rode at mile tracks like Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Woodbine, Hollywood Park, Delta Downs, Aqueduct and the Meadowlands.
“On a bull ring you are getting bounced around all the time. It seems like on every turn somebody is coming in, somebody is coming out and jockeys are constantly having to take a hold of their horses. Now you’ve got the long straightaways to find running room; you have more room to do things.”
“It changes everything,” agreed new racing manager Matt Jukich, who used to call the races at Northlands as well as being the assistant racing manager. “With that quarter of a mile straightaway it will allow horses to make big moves from way back. It’s going to be very interesting racing.”
The racing surface itself has drawn such rave reviews that trainer Rod Cone said “I haven’t heard one negative thing about the surface. That’s unusual because horsemen generally always find something to complain about. Personally, I think the track is fantastic. It’s level and it’s got a good slope to it; I’ve never had a track to train on during the spring that was this good.”
Jockeys Damario Bynoe and Wilmer Galviz both really like the surface too. “It’s very kind,” said Galviz, one of Alberta’s top riders last year. “It’s got a lot of bounce to it.”
“It’s great,” concurred Bynoe. “It’s a quiet track; you hardly hear the horses getting over the surface. The horses I’ve galloped over it seem really light on their feet.”
As far as strategy, Bynoe agreed with Hedge “On a five-eighths mile track you’ve got to rush your horses away from the gate to get position early. If you rush on this track to make the lead you might not make it home. You have to be more patient. Sit and wait longer. You have to judge a race more.”
Paul Ryneveld, general manager of both Century Mile and Century Downs in Balzac, just north of Calgary, said the basic construction of both tracks are the same. “On both tracks fabric was laid on the native ground - graded, of course, to specs. Seven inches of drain rock was laid on top of that and then graded into place. Then there was another layer of fabric and then seven inches of crushed limestone that forms the standardbred surface. Lastly, seven inches of fine sand mixed with ground bark - organic material which provides moisture retention and bounce - and about five per cent clay.”
At both tracks Steve Wood, a former track superintendent for Oak Tree, Del Mar, and Santa Anita race meets and now a consultant at tracks around the world was hired. Ron Grift, who used to keep Northlands racing surface in top condition, also added his expertise. “Ron and Steve have both been great resources,” said Ryneveld, adding that the sand was sourced locally by Wood.
“The primary objective is to provide the horse’s foot with a cushioned surface,” Woods wrote in an article for the Thoroughbred Owners of California. “The ‘cushion’ hopefully prevents a horse’s foot from coming to a sudden, jarring stop on impact. This is accomplished by laying a series of small pads of semi-compacted materials below the surface. The cushion is important when you consider a horse’s foot force when traveling at full speed is 5,000 pounds per square inch. A proper cushion enables recoil or lift as the horse’s foot goes forward. When done properly, track maintenance can extend the career of many horses.”
Racing fans will see several welcome changes at Century Mile which is moving to a 1:45 p.m. post time on Saturdays and Sundays to better accommodate simulcast wagering (when Thursdays are added to the schedule beginning on May 30 post time will be 5:55 p.m.)
One of the biggest is the takeout. Win, place and show wagering will now have a 14.75 per cent takeout which makes it the lowest in North America. (It was 17 per cent at Northlands). Even better the take out on the Pick 5 and Hi 5 pools will be just 10 per cent and 15 per cent on Pick 3 and Pick 4 bets as opposed to 26.8 per cent at Northlands.
“It’s a huge difference,” said Jukich. “Horse players were asking for a lower takeout and we’ve given them what they want. Ask and we deliver.”
The infield tote board will also serve as a giant Jumbotron screen to allow fans to get a clearer view of the action given that, on the mile track, the horses are farther away.
“It’s a new beginning for racing in Edmonton,” said Jukich. “People are excited about the new building and a new future for horse racing. At this point I don’t know how you can be negative about anything.”
The 51-day thoroughbred meet runs from Sunday to August 26.
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