Century Mile, awash in colour and freshly minted brightness, buzzed with electricity long before the first race went under the wire at the new racetrack and casino which opened Sunday afternoon. An hour before first post and still a good kilometre from the track’s entrance near the Edmonton International Airport, traffic already growled to a stop.
With both the main and auxiliary parking lots full, traffic was directed to the nearby Premium Outlet Collection mall where shuttle busses collected racing fans. “We started with eight buses and we ended up with 14,” said Century Mile casino manager Kevan Schell. “They went non-stop.” Inside, a crowd estimated at 5,000, stood, sat and walked shoulder to shoulder.
“Everybody wanted to see what it looked like,” said Schell. “For the most part I think they were pleased with what they saw.”
“The place was packed; it was a great crowd and they all seemed happy,” echoed racing manager Matt Jukich. “People couldn’t find a place to park; they were lined up as far as you could see. It would have been nice if the weather would have been better but all in all it went pretty smoothly. This is the start of a new day.”
“The mood is definitely upbeat,” concurred Alberta Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association vice president Brian Bygrave. “It was a long struggle to get to this point but we’ve finally arrived. I’ve talked to a lot of trainers and jockeys and they all like what they are seeing. We’re working with people - Century Casinos - that want to be in the business of horse racing. Sure, there’s a casino as well as the racetrack but they know racing is important to them. Without racing they wouldn’t be here.”
Paul Ryneveld, general manager of both Century Mile and Century Downs just north of Calgary, left little doubt about that when he said “We’re a racetrack with a casino. Not the other way around. I think horse racing will be very healthy in Alberta.”
Ryneveld, like many others, believe Century Mile’s one-mile circumference - the only one-mile track outside of Ontario - is going to be a game changer. “I saw some horsemen (Sunday) from B.C. who came here because they just had to see it. They told me there is no reason for them not to send a horse out here now. I think now we’ll be able to attract horses from Ontario as well as from the U.S. to our bigger races like the Canadian Derby.”
The Canadian Derby has an advertised purse of $150,000 but Ryneveld said Century Casinos has already committed to another $50,000 making the August 18 race a $200,000 event. And that’s only the beginning. “The Derby needs to be more than $200,000. A $200,000 race is still a $150,000 race in the U.S. because of the dollar exchange.”
Maybe the happiest guy in attendance for Sunday’s curtain opener was veteran trainer Tom Rycroft - especially after he took the day’s first race - a $25,000 allowance with Born in a Breeze. “This is the race I really wanted to win,” grinned Rycroft, who also won another race on the nine-race card. “First race at Century Mile. That’s a feather in the cap. And what a horse to do it with.”
Born in a Breeze hadn’t been seen in Alberta since he won last June’s $50,000 Spangled Jimmy. “He showed how big of a heart he has when he won that race because he needed surgery to remove a chip out of his left knee shortly after that race. It was a real good operation. “He showed that when he won his first race back after the operation this winter in Phoenix. He beat some really nice horses that day.”
On Sunday he beat some really nice horses again including runner-up and former Alberta Horse of the Year Trooper John, who is trained by Tom’s son, Tim. Sixth and last during the early going - and still ahead of only one horse with three-eighths of a mile to run - Born in a Breeze turned on the after-burners under jockey Rigo Sarmiento down the long stretch.
“I knew Trooper John was the horse to beat and we got him,” said Tom. “I’m just glad that the stretch at Century Mile is as long as it is because it took a while for him to get past Trooper John. But I knew he had him at the sixteenths pole. He’s a horse that never quits,” he said after the three-quarters of a length victory. There was lots of speed in the race and I told Rigo not to worry. I just told him to stay close because I figured the speed would come back to him and it did. Rigo rode him perfectly but then he knows the horse so well. He rode him when he won in Phoenix and he galloped him all winter in Phoenix. “Galloped him for nothing too because he liked him so much and he wanted to ride him.”
Tom Rycroft is one of Century Mile’s biggest boosters. “Century Mile is doing a helluva job. This track is going to make horse racing in Alberta. It’s going to be good for everyone especially the breeders because there is some stability in horse racing here now. It’s something now we know will last which we haven’t known for the last several years.”
STOCK REPORT - Racing continues this weekend on both Saturday and Sunday. Post time both days is 1:45 p.m.
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