We are now two years into a landmark agreement between the provincial government and the horse racing industry of Alberta. And both sides are adamant that the ten year deal is working well for each of them. There was an informal celebration of the milestone on Saturday afternoon when provincial finance minister, Joe Ceci, paid a visit to Century Downs in Balzac.
“It’s nice to see thoroughbred racing back in the Calgary market,” Ceci told the audience. “When I served on Calgary city council, my ward was adjacent to Stampede Park. I was sorry to see the sport leave Calgary after 2008. I’m glad to see it return and I’m glad our government has had a chance to help make that happen.”
In a statement, Ceci noted the industry employs about 1,600 people directly. That number expands to more than 7,000 when related to suppliers, breeders and others, primarily in rural areas of Alberta. And in terms of economic activity, the numbers are an important part of the agri-business books and of the economies of dozens of rural communities.
At its best, the racing and breeding industry generated about $400 million of economic activity a year. That number slumped to about $255 million annually following the shutdown of racing at Stampede Park in 2008. A lot of the damage was done to businesses in southern Alberta.
The most recent numbers from the province suggest a $290 million economic impact annually. That number is on the rise and will be helped by the growing strength of Century Downs and by next year’s opening of the new Century Mile racetrack and racing entertainment centre in Leduc. All of that is a function of the stability brought to the industry by the signing of the new agreement last year.
“Thoroughbred racing returning to the Calgary area was brought about by the ten year funding agreement and the confidence and long-term stability that agreement brought to the industry,” Horse Racing Alberta’s chief executive, Shirley McClellan, explained. “It’s the same confidence that led to a $50 million investment decision to build the new Edmonton area racetrack.”
“The ten year funding agreement has brought a new sense of optimism and desire for investment into capital, infrastructure and horse population in Alberta,” said Paul Ryneveld, General Manager of Century Downs. “Alberta is now poised to be a leader in horse racing in western Canada, and that is directly attributable to the confidence and sustainability the funding agreement provides.”
Under the agreement, Horse Racing Alberta receives a share of slot machine revenues from the racing entertainment centres. In 2017-2018, the forecast is that share should be worth about $35 million. Not one cent of that money is tax money. The province’s share of proceeds is administered through Alberta Gaming & Liquor and supports thousands of volunteer and community organizations throughout the province. Horse Racing Alberta’s share is divided among the various breeds to help with purses, breeders’ bonuses, backstretch programs, and marketing.
“We think we can grow the numbers,” says McClellan. “The new facility in Leduc, when it comes on stream in the fall of next year, is going to be really important to the industry.”
Century Downs Racing Season Ends
It’s been a milepost season for thoroughbreds and quarter horses in Alberta with the return of racing to the Calgary market for the first time in nine years. Despite the cold weather of the final weekend, the short fall meet brought back fans of the sport in southern Alberta and continued the pattern of attracting new fans. Given the learning curve that came with a new facility and a new operator, some valuable lessons were learned that can be incorporated into the planning for 2018 and beyond.
“We’ll have to get Century Mile up and running and then see what we can do to add to the fan experience for both of the major centres,” Paul Ryneveld told me. “We know that we need to expand our building here at Century Downs. We know that there are lots of places in the area where there are slot machines and where people can go to play them. We need to have them want to play the machines here. That means putting an emphasis on customer service and all of our people are going through training with that in mind. I think we’ve got a fine chef and we’re putting a good menu in front of our customers, and that’s a big part of customer service.”
“Competitive racing is what sets us apart from other gaming venues. Now that we’ve had three seasons of harness racing and a fall meet of thoroughbreds and quarter horses, we can look at what works for particular groups of patrons. We can look at particular wagers that attract fans. The HPI program has proven to be very popular. We already do a fair bit of marketing, both for racing, and for our slot machine business, so we’ll be able to fine tune that.”
“We’ll see what a finalized calendar of racing for 2018 looks like when the Horse Racing Alberta board meets on Nov. 23rd. But our Industry Day and our week of racing in August for standardbred will be back. The week of racing will start with the Packwood Grand group visiting again. That’s about 1,500 patrons for the day. It will include a number of events through the week, culminating with the mid summer classic program on the weekend. The fall thoroughbred meet was stronger, thanks to the support of the horsemen and with the addition of several stakes races to the schedule.”
“So far as the thoroughbred meet is concerned, I was really pleased with the racetrack surface and heard a lot of good things about it from trainers. Don Monkman and his staff worked hard to keep it in good shape from the start of the meet to the end of the meet. They’ll be taking that surface off this week and storing the material for re-use next year.”
What’s it like to be in the Breeders’ Cup
It’s one thing to be at the Breeder’s Cup. It’s quite something else to be there with a horse that is in one of the races. Terry Hamilton, Darrell Bander and Adrian Munro each had that special distinction on the weekend as the 34th edition of the Breeder’s Cup took place at Del Mar in southern California.
Munro, who is President of the CTHS Alberta chapter, runs Highfield Stock Farm at Aldersyde, near High River. He is part of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, which together with Twin Creeks Racing Stable, own Destin, a 4 year old. Destin came through a very tough race to win the Gr. 2 $200,000 Marathon Stakes on the Friday program. It was a mile and ¾ race on the dirt track. The winning time was 2:57.77.
“Destin drew post position 3 alongside the Argentine horse, Infobedad,” Munro told me Sunday morning as he prepared to fly home from San Diego. “The two of them went at it the whole way and Destin was on the outside for the whole race. He really had to dig in at the end.”
“We’ll have to see how he comes out of the race but I suspect the partners will decide to run him one more year before he turns to stallion duties. He’s got a full brother named Creative Cause who is the fourth leading freshman sire in North America this year, so we’re hopeful that he can be at least as good.”
The other horse of note is Heart to Heart, a six year old, which was bred by Darrell Bauder’s Red Hawk Stables. It’s owned by Lethbridge businessman, Terry Hamilton. It drew the two-hole for Saturday’s running of the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile on the turf.
“I knew when Midnight Storm’s interests decided to put him in the turf mile instead of the dirt mile, that we were going to have our hands full,” Hamilton told me Sunday morning. “The two of them set an awfully fast pace off the front end most of the way. My horse was right there until midway in the stretch before he faltered. He wound up tenth but he finished ahead of Midnight Storm (World Approval was the winner, benefitting from the fast early pace by the leaders). I couldn’t have asked for anything more from him and Julien Leparoux, who’s been on him for a lot of his races, rode him as well as we could have hoped.”
“We’ll take him back to Florida and give him a rest for a couple of months,” said Hamilton. “He’s always raced well in Florida and there are a couple of stakes races in January. He’s sound, so I think we’ll prep him for that and see where we go from there.”
“It was pretty special to have my three daughters and their boyfriends come to Del Mar with me. You’re always so well treated by the organizers of the Breeders’ Cup and it was great to have some quality family time as part of the week.”
Darrell Bauder echoed Hamilton’s comments. “When you have a horse in the Breeders’ Cup, people can’t do enough for you,” he told me. “I met an awful lot of really great people in my first trip to the event. Now I’m on my way back to Calgary to sit down with the Century Downs folks and get the fall thoroughbred meet cleaned up.” (In addition to running Red Hawk Stables near Cochrane, Darrell is executive director of the Alberta HBPA).
A New Business Opportunity
Now that the Alberta thoroughbred season has concluded, veteran conditioner, Rod Cone, can get back to his “other” job. He’s headed to his winter home in Florida and will be monitoring a number of distributors across North America for the products of Equine Exchange.
“For years I’ve had some recipes of all natural herbal products for use in the care and conditioning of horses,” he told me. “My stepson, Dr. Steve Smith, who’s also a veterinarian, encouraged me to try and market them. A couple of chemists a the University of Alberta were able to fine tune the recipes. Over the past three years we’ve been able to add distributors. In fact, we just added one in Barbados. We’ve got a half dozen different products available. All the manufacturing is done in Edmonton. The products are mostly therapeutic. They’re natural painkillers and natural anti-inflammatories. And they’re being well received in the equine world. I think this will be my retirement income.”
the Harrisburg standardbred yearling sale runs Monday thru Wednesday this week in Harrisburg Pennsylvania. More than 800 yearlings will go through the sales ring and even with the state of the Canadian dollar, there are likely to be at least a few Alberta buyers. There’s also a mixed sale on Thursday and Friday… Rico Walcott ran away with the riders’ title at the Century Downs meet. Greg Tracy and Craig Smith needed the final day’s results to decide the trainer’s title. Tracy led by one (16-15). Kudos to the riders who stuck around to ride on the final weekend of the meet which turned out to be a really cold couple of days. Given that many of the riders are from the Caribbean, it was a cold way to make a living. A tip o’ the toque to those who helped to finish off the meet in fine style. I dare say those that didn’t own a toque before the weekend, own one now. I saw a few of them under helmets of participating riders.