Robert Woods has been fielding many calls since word got out that live horse racing will return to the province of Saskatchewan this year, and hopefully for many years to come.
Woods is a member of the Muskoday First Nation and vice-president of Moosomin Downs & Entertainment (MD & E), a horse racing and entertainment venture that stems from a partnership between Ontario-based Pan Am Horse Racing and Moosomin First Nation Economic Development Corporation. MD & E recently acquired a thoroughbred racetrack operator’s licence to conduct live racing at Marquis Downs for ten days between August 27 and September 25. They will also continue with plans to develop a new track, Moosomin Downs, within the rural municipality of Corman Park near Highway 16.
Situated on a 140-acre parcel of land northwest of Saskatoon, the new track will initially feature a six-furlong oval that will be ready for another ten-day race season next summer, with larger plans in the works for a grander facility. There will be another announcement at the end of the race season in October with more details about the build including grandstand capacity, number of horses the stables can accommodate, and other amenities. “Come the end of October, we will have a full architectural design/phase-out with timelines, costs, everything, and we can announce larger commitments that need to be made,” said Woods. The project will likely cost in excess of $40 million to complete.
Woods notes that securing an operator’s licence has been a small feat in itself for the partnership. “In Canada, we have a complicated model which requires numerous processes within the licensing that make it difficult to get in. We have it set up as such that gaming and gambling and online betting and what’s called pari-mutuel, where horse racing comes in, are all separate under the criminal code. In the US, if you get the licence, you get all three,” said Woods.
Now that they’ve obtained an operator’s licence, what is the next step for MD & E?
“Well, we are definitely focusing on the marketing side of things,” says Woods. “Obviously, getting some positive media on the story is a big deal because underneath all that is the fact Saskatchewan is really the only jurisdiction where First Nations have control over the majority of the gambling industry, from casinos to online betting to now pari-mutuel wagering. We are the first jurisdiction in the country that allowed us to do that, and to privatize in such a way that allows for individual investors to participate.
“Much of it is community-driven. There is not a casino in the country that isn’t owned by a person or group that’s backed by shareholders like you see in the U.S and Las Vegas. So for this to happen, it’s very unique and very opportune for the right people.”
Impact of the track closure on the racing community
Since 1969, Marquis Downs has been the only venue to provide horse racing in Saskatchewan. However, in 2020 and 2021, during the pandemic and with COVID-19 restrictions in place, the racetrack was forced to close its doors. Last spring, the racing community was disheartened to learn that Prairieland Park, the former operator of Marquis Downs, intended to build a soccer stadium to replace the racetrack. Prairieland’s decision, alongside the pandemic, has adversely affected many people, including First Nations.
“The pandemic was the last straw the industry couldn’t sustain. And what people sometimes overlook is that the majority of the supply chain and the operations of that track and its facility, up to 80 per cent of the individuals involved were First Nations and they all lost their jobs. A big part of the horse owners are our people – we greatly participated,” said Woods.
In Saskatchewan alone, there are 74 First Nations, and Woods notes the decision to shutter Marquis Downs’ doors impacted many people within that community. “I would say it affected half of Saskatchewan’s First Nations in some way.”
No races, in turn, mean no jobs, which of course, forces everyone involved on the racing circuit to make significant life changes. For example, Saskatoon-born rider Nicole Hein left the province last year to pursue her jockey career in Ontario. Hein began working at Marquis Downs back in 2010 as a groom and then transitioned to race riding in 2019. With a passion for the game, Hein was a big advocate for keeping the track open.
“I fought for 2021; I stopped my riding career, I put it on pause and I got the word out into the world about how wrong I thought Marquis Downs’ closing down was. At some point I had to say, ‘Okay, I’ve done as much as I can’; the word is out there, public opinion has shifted, people are starting to look at Prairieland, the exhibition association, a little bit more critically, and I can’t sit around and wait any longer, I gotta get the show on the road. That’s why I came out here [Ontario] last fall to gallop and I got an extension to ride. This is technically my third year as an apprentice because of that.”
Like many hard-working horsemen, Hein gallops in the morning and race rides in the afternoon at either Woodbine or Fort Erie. She is candid when asked how the transition to this circuit has been. “Not bad, having a lot of success at Fort Erie, getting on a lot more horses here than I ever was at home. There is a lot more opportunity when you don’t just have 300 to 400 horses on the grounds. I like it. I don’t think I would go back if I had the opportunity, but I do wish there was a track there for people to enjoy.”
The future of Moosomin Downs
While racing fans can visit Marquis Downs later this year for a bit of racing action, MD & E’s primary focus is to build and host live racing at Moosomin Downs next year. Woods admits this project owes it new beginnings to the significant land holding of the Moosomin First Nation.
“It’s only because Moosomin had a 1,000 acres of land that allowed for this project to even get consideration. They were the only ones. Sixteen other First Nations own land surrounding Saskatoon – but none of them had the size or scale that’s needed to do it. So, it almost fell in our lap.” According to the City of Saskatoon, Moosomin rural land holdings total 899.7 acres in Corman Park.
In the meantime, MD & E will offer racing fans a chance to watch and bet on live thoroughbred racing next month at Marquis Downs. HPI betting will be available for the meet (as well as Moosomin Downs). The Elite Indian Relay Association will also take part in a few weekends of Indian race relays, including the FSIN Chief’s Mile race. On their Facebook page, the association posted a tentative relay schedule with dates for August 27-28 and Sep 24-25 at Marquis Downs.
It’s here that Woods mentions another key goal of MD & E. “Our goal is to make Indian Relay bettable in Saskatchewan. It was huge at the stampede in Calgary. It’s been very big at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg and we see it as a product in the future because it is driven by our young people.” While wagering on Indian Relay is not available at this time, it will still inject some much-needed life and energy into the track one last time.
Although Marquis Downs is slated to become an elite soccer stadium, a recent press release from Prairieland Park noted they are still waiting on funding for the project. However, the aforementioned release also stated the non-profit corporation is willing to donate several items from the current track, including the starting gate, equipment, and the specialty base from the track towards the development of Moosomin Downs.
However, Woods says they are only taking one asset from the current racetrack.
“We’re just taking the sand. The sand that goes into a track is very unique and it’s quite expensive, so that saves us that piece. Because our commitment for the first couple of years is just to operate a track while we build out the larger aspects…which is part of our vision to have a fully integrated site that offers a number of different amenities that support the industry. We want to do a jockey school; we want to have breeding facilities, and large and longer-term barns for people to stable their horses. A campground and then a storage locker facility to provide everything that the industry needs access to all in one area – maximizing the 140 acres.”
For 2023, the main focus is to have the track up and running, but Woods notes they are taking a steady course of action with the build-out.
“We will have a track and run races next year – hopefully, another 10 to 16 days just on the track. We have to be cautious because there are [wild] animals out there, so we need to be wary of the construction commitments and what that means to the site. There is some site work that needs to be done with respect to water and sewer and those types of things and just getting it ready. But having a full-on grandstand is a few years away.”
While thoroughbred racing will be one element of the project, several outlets such as APTN news have already reported that Moosomin Downs will host Indian Relay, Standardbred, chariot and chuckwagon racing.
A future name change?
There are many moving parts to this process, and Woods also mentions a possible name change for both the MD & E partnership and the track. “This is for this year’s racing project, so that could change for next year and going forward.”
While unconfirmed at this point, Woods notes that the name change would be “probably Yellow Sky. The [Moosomin] Nation is actually undertaking the name change itself. So they won’t be the Moosomin First Nation anymore, they are going to change it to Yellow Sky,” said Woods, who notes MD & E may then change their name to Yellow Sky Sports and Entertainment.
As live racing is set to resume next month, even for a small slice of time at Marquis Downs, the horse spirit has come alive again through MD & E’s current and future endeavours.
“It’s part of who we are; the animal spirit is part of us, no different than the importance of the buffalo at one time or the significance of the eagle,” said Woods, “so there’s always been a connection on that level from our culture to the horse. We’ve participated almost on the outside to this point, yet we were the greatest to be impacted directly from it. To have control of the jurisdiction now, there’s great excitement from First Nations across the country about what they can do.”
Note: Moosomin First Nation and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) were both contacted for this story and did not respond by the time of filing.