Kent Verlik used to deliver the news. Good and bad. Now, as Chief Executive Officer of Horse Racing Alberta, he’s hoping to help only make good news when it comes to horse racing in this province.
“Overall things are positive,” said Verlik, who as a youngster was a paper boy at the Edmonton Journal - rising up through the ranks to becoming a district manager, telemarketing manager and winning a contest for increasing circulation. Later in his career he became a distribution manager for Sun Media and Netmar Systems where he was responsible for all aspects of newspaper circulation which included clients like The Edmonton Examiner and This Week newspapers.
“The atmosphere is good and there is a lot of optimism. There is confidence in the industry right now. The big breeders are still there. Some of the smaller breeders who have left or are sitting on the sidelines are wondering if they should come back into the business. This is a critical year for us to show that things are turning around. Good things are going on."
"We’ve attracted some new stables, the facilities are good and we are attracting good crowds. We are getting the people out but they aren’t betting as much as we had hoped,” said Verlik, who replaced the big shoes of Shirley McClellan.
“Century Mile has been packed on many days; the crowds are really good. Attendance on Father’s Day was second only to opening day at Century Mile. People are finding us. But it appears that the people who are coming out don’t know how to bet. It’s a new audience - which is good - but we need to educate them,” said Verlik, 55, who spent 10 years in the news paper business and then 20 years in the gaming business.
Total handle so far this fledgling season is down five per cent. Slot machine revenue on the other hand is way up. “The increase in slot revenues is about eight per cent so that has more than compensated for the decline in handle,” said Verlik.
There is, however, another glaring reason why wagering is down: the size of the fields. Paul Ryneveld, manager of both Century Mile and Century Downs in Balzac, just north of Calgary, said 103 horses aged three and up haven’t even started once this year at the Edmonton track. Throw in about 100 two-year-olds and that means that one-third of the total horse population of 725 horses have yet to make an appearance in a race.
Verilk concurred. “Short fields… That’s a problem. The field sizes are low. Too many five- and six-short fields. For whatever reason some trainers are just not entering. We need space for horses that will be running,” said Verlik. “Bigger fields is our biggest issue. There just isn’t much betting action on five- and six-horse fields. Whether it was the late training start and horses aren’t fit yet I’m not sure. But it’s happening.”
Ryneveld, who said that Century Mile requires a minimum of one start per month for one stall, said 40 per cent of all the thoroughbred trainers have had less than half a start per horse per stall. “Granting stalls at Century Downs will be reflective of a trainer’s participation of at Century Mile and it will be reflective on getting stalls next year at Century Mile.”
“The quality is getting better,” said Verlik. “It is improving. The size of fields and the purses are a chicken and egg issue as to what comes first. Increased purses lead to bigger fields. Bigger fields leads to increased wagering and increased wagering leads to increased purses. Increased purses attracts new owners to purchase more horses and the demand for more horses attracts new breeders all of which leads to an increased horse population."
“My biggest goals are to increase the horse population, increase field size, increase purses and increase the handle.”
Cyclical, Verlik said “They all go together. It’s one big strategy to turn the business around. We have to take care of our owners and breeders in order to get bigger as a whole. Every spare dime will go to purses and breeder improvements.”
Increased emphasis on marketing the product is also on the rise. “We need to get the word out that racing is still here. The way racing was marketed (at Northlands) was that racing was ending, not relocating.”
Verlik comes to his CEO position at Horse Racing Alberta with a wealth of background in gaming. Beginning in 1995 with the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) Verlik held a number of positions including Executive Director, Social Responsibility; Executive Director, Corporate Strategy & Social Responsibility; and Vice President, Lottery & Gaming. He participated on various national and provincial committees and presented regularly at both Academic and Industry sponsored conferences.
Verilk was there, in 1996, when slot machines were first introduced into Alberta’s charitable casinos. In 1999 Verlik was asked to lead a review of all Alberta gaming licensing policies which resulted in a 600-page report that was completed in October of 2001.
Included in the report were the creation of Racing Entertainment Centre Facility licenses, the creation and regulations of new casinos and policies by which new gaming facilities would be vetted and approved. The report gave 61 recommendations all of which were accepted; Verlik was awarded a Premiers Award for excellence.
“It created a policy framework which still guides gaming today. They’ve stood the test of time. Everybody wanted a license. But what’s the process?”
Most recently Verlik was the director of the Alberta Safety Codes Authority, a new division of the Safety Codes Council that he was responsible for establishing. Recruited by Horse Racing Alberta and coming on board last August, Verlik has spent much of his time getting to know the stakeholders.
“He’s got fresh eyes,” said Ryneveld. “He asks questions to learn more. Some of the things we were looking for in a candidate was someone with good business acumen and someone who came from a government or quasi government background which Kent certainly has.”
Verilk, who started last August, said the first three weeks were a sprint. "I had to learn a new language. The next two months I spent going across Alberta and talking to people in racing. I tried to talk to as many people as possible. I love horses. And I love horse racing. I just do,” said Verlik, who lives on a 42-acre parcel of land in Onaway.
“And I always have. My dad took me to the races when I was very young. Horse racing is a big part of our heritage. The last economic study, which was in 2015, showed that the economic impact from horse racing in Alberta is $300 million every year. And that was up 14 per cent from the previous four years. In the last few years there has been $100 million in projects and building construction from Century Mile and Century Downs."
“Plus all those jobs that they created. Where else are they building new race tracks in North America? I don’t know of any other place. This is all about rebirth, rejuvenation and renaissance."
“I love my job. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. The people here are all so passionate and colourful. It’s a beautiful sport and I’m excited to have the opportunity to be a part of it.”
There are four stakes races on this long weekend’s (Saturday, Sunday and Monday) three cards. As usual, trainer Tim Rycroft and his owners Riversedge Racing Stables will have a big say in the outcome.
Alberta’s leading owner and trainer have four horses nominated to Sunday’s $50,000 Fred Jones Handicap for three-year-olds and up; four nominees to Sunday’s co-featured $75,000 Shirley Vargo for fillies and mares; two nominations for Monday’s $50,000 Sonoma for three-year-old fillies and three possible entrants in Monday’s $50,000 Count Lathum for three-year-old colts and geldings.
Trooper John, Alberta’s 2017 Horse of the Year, will try to make amends in the mile and a sixteenth Fred Jones. He will be joined by either stablemates Gem Alta or Stone Carver, who has won three in a row including the Spangled Jimmy, with Ace of Diamonds unlikely to enter.
But any of those four Riversedge horses are going to be tested by Sir Bronx, last year’s Sprinter of the Year. After a lengthy rest, he came back to win an allowance race on June 16 in most impressive fashion.
In the Shirley Vargo, Curtis Landry has both Raider and Ruffenuff nominated.
Raider was last year’s champion three year old filly and is coming off a win in the RedTail Landing stake; Ruffenuff was victorious in the JetSet Handicap.
Also nominated is defending champion Sail On Bye, who won last year at odds of 17-1. There are also three B.C. invaders nominated including Good Luck to You, who won her 2019 debut in a stake and who has been runner-up in the last two Hastings stakes.
In the Sonoma, Im Evin Im Leavin looks to make it four straight wins. After taking two allowance races at Sunland Park in New Mexico, Im Evin Im Leavin won as the odds-on-favourite in the Chariot Chaser.
Along with two more B.C. nominees including Flight Data, who is undefeated in two career starts, the obviously talented Exactly, runner-up to Im Evin Im Leavin, is looking to turn the tables. After breaking her maiden by 12 lengths, Exactly ran in the Chariot Chaser just a week later. She then posted another huge, easy tally in an allowance race running away and hiding by almost 12 lengths again.
The fourth stake for Canadian Derby aspirants sees Sharp Dressed Beau trying to stretch it out in the one-mile Count Latham. Sharp Dressed Beau has won his last two starts including the Western Canada going six furlongs. The runner-up in the latter, Call It a Wrap, was closing fast and should appreciate the extra distance.
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