It was surreal in every sense. Thoroughbred racing opened Sunday night at Century Mile without any fans. Yet they still bet $572,000 which is the highest handle ever for an eight-race card and the second-highest handle ever at the Edmonton-area track.
“Last year we had 4,000 people at the track for our opening card and they bet $172,000 on nine races,” said Paul Ryneveld, managing director of Edmonton’s Century Mile Racetrack and Casino and Calgary’s Century Downs Racetrack and Casino. “This year we had none because of Covid-19 restrictions and we still had a pretty good day. I had hoped for a $1-million day and realistically thought we would bet $650,000 but all things considered it was a good start to the meet.”
What was most interesting - and most promising - was that the per-race handle grew significantly as the day went along. “We started out slow. They bet $25,000 on our first race and we were all thinking ‘Oh, no.’ But then we averaged $125,000 on the last three races. On the seventh race alone they bet $160,000.”
There are several reasons why the handle grew as the card went along. First and foremost was that the first three races had seven-horse fields. The seventh race had 11 starters and the eighth and final race had 9 even after three horses scratched. “With short fields there just aren’t enough combinations to play,” said Ryneveld. “Bettors won’t beaten short-field races.”
That was evidenced last year. “We had some brutally, crappy cards last year,” said Ryneveld. “We averaged just 6.8 horses per race. “On our opening card this year we had 8.5 horses per race. And for our next card on Friday night (at 7:15 p.m.) we have seven races averaging 8.35 horses per race. “One of the races has eight horses, another has 9 and a third has 11. Eight is the magic number.”
Another reason betting grew as Sunday’s card went along was the competition factor. “For the first couple of our races we were up against Santa Anita,” said Ryneveld of the very popular California track which bet $19,154,265 on 12 races. “When we shook loose from Santa Anita that’s when people started to bet on the card at Century Mile,” said last year’s leading trainer Tim Rycroft. “We are filling holes where there isn’t much competition,” said Verlik of the later times on Fridays and Sundays and the 2:15 p.m. post times for Calgary’s harness racing at Century Downs. “The later thoroughbred cards are there so we can also pick up some wagering from the west coast.”
Santa Anita, like almost every North American racetrack, didn’t allow spectators either. Instead of people in the stands betting, betting on horse racing these days now consists of betting live streamed races online at sites like Horse Player Interactive (HPIbet.com) in Canada, on simulcast feeds like TVG, Twin Spires and Xpress Bet at other racing jurisdictions and at off-track betting sites.
The races were also simulcast on the Century Mile website. “It’s a different way of doing business,” said Matt Jukich, Century Mile’s racing manager. “But this is a whole-new world.”
Century Mile is going to look at how betting goes on Friday. “They are different days so it’s not apples to apples but we’ll see how the later post time on Friday goes,” said Ryneveld. “If Friday does show a lot and next Sunday has about the same handle we may go to 7:15 on Sundays too. But we aren’t going to make a decision off of just one day.”
“Running on Friday and Sunday evenings means not putting ourselves up against the big tracks like Churchill Downs or Belmont and Gulfstream,” said Norm Castiglione, president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “We’re trying to capture a time where there is the least amount of competition for the bettors.”
Century Mile certainly isn’t the only track that has shown a major increase in wagering. Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs bet over $1 million on their first card on just six races. The next day they bet $1.6 million. Assiniboia Downs bet a total of $12,467,854 for all of last year. Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack bet $5,553,767 on their opening day card, June 6 which easily eclipsed last year’s opening day handle of $4,084,572. And, Ontario’s Fort Erie track kicked off June 2 when $2,093,000 was wagered - an increase of more than 70 per cent from last year’s curtain raiser.
“You’d think the handle would be devastated with no live racing. But obviously that’s not the case,” said Kent Verlik, Chief Executive Officer for Horse Racing Alberta. “You can watch and bet on the races just about anywhere.”
Jukich said signing up so you can bet at Horse Player Interactive (HPIbet.com) is “easy. You just have to be a Canadian resident of legal age.” The reason for the increases in betting on horse racing is pretty simple: “We’re the only game in town,” said trainer Rick Hedge. “Because of Covid-19 there’s no hockey, no football, no basketball, no baseball. No anything. I think a lot of people - especially younger people - are looking to gamble and horse racing is the only thing they have.”
“People were starving to death to do something sports related and do a little betting,” agreed Rycroft. “I’d be willing to bet they’ll bet more this Friday than they did on Sunday. Everybody knows we’re racing now.”
Ryneveld said “It’s a great time for horse racing to capitalize on the void. It’s absolutely a big opportunity to recapture the interest of people that used to follow horse racing but left 30 years ago to other forms of gambling and never came back.”
Verilk said a lot of work went into getting racing back in Alberta. “The horsemen, the owners and the track operators all came together in a great way. I’m proud of the work they did. “Despite everything we’ve gone through this could be a good year.”
Sunday’s opening card wasn’t without incident. Jockeys Adrian Gonzalez and eight-time Alberta leading rider Rico Walcott were both taken to hospital after their mounts acted up in the starting gate prior to the sixth race. Gonzalez’s horse, Leena, flipped over backwards and landed on him resulting in a broken leg. Walcott’s horse acted up as well pinning one of his legs against the starting gate.
“He’s got a light contusion in one leg around the shin bone,” said Walcott’s agent Bob Fowlis. “He was sent home from the hospital in a walking cast but he got off lucky; there was nothing broken.” Fowlis said Walcott will miss 7-10 days. “The doctor said some people heal faster than others.”
Last year Walcott underwent major surgery to remove a golf ball-sized tumour on the front, left side of his brain. Walcott, who has won five Canadian Derbies amazingly returned to ride last fall winning 17 races from a very limit amount of rides.
- Trainer Dave Nicholson unleashed a couple of bullets on Sunday. One of his two winners, Deuces Are Wild, who was bred in Florida by owner Frank Bodell, set a track record of 1:02.21 for five and a half furlongs while winning by eight and three-quarter lengths.
- Calgary’s Century Downs is hosting harness racing at 2:15 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays. The standardbreds also race at Lacombe’s Track On 2 on Sundays at 3:10 p.m.
“The standardbred guys are really entering up,” said Ryneveld. “They have the horse population to support three days a week. They have nine races and full fields.” Last Monday they held 15 qualifying races for about 100 horses. Ryneveld said thoroughbred racing could go to three days a week as well but only if there was an influx of horses and purse money to warrant it.
While Lacombe will admit fans if they reserve in advance, spectators aren’t allowed at Century Downs either. Like Century Mile only essential personnel - all adhering to strict health-and-safety protocols - were allowed.
For the thoroughbreds jockeys, grooms, starting gate crew members and outriders all wore masks although jockeys were able to remove the facial gear for actual races. For harness racing drivers, trainers and grooms all wore masks.
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