Thoroughbred racing and breeding has been a part of the Alberta scene for more than 125 years. Inevitably, over the decades there have been ups and downs in the life cycle. But as Canada celebrates the 250th anniversary of horse racing in the country in 2017, the cycle in the province seems to be moving upward once again.
Many on the provincial scene points to the signing of a new agreement between Horse Racing Alberta (HRA) and the Government of Alberta in March of 2016 as the catalyst for a renewed business model for horse racing in the province.
“Thoroughbred racing returning to the Calgary area was brought about by the 10-year funding agreement and the confidence and long-term sustainability that agreement brought to the industry,” said HRA chief executive officer Shirley McLellan. “It’s the same confidence that led to a $50 million investment decision by Century Casinos to build the new racetrack, dubbed Century Mile, now under construction near the Edmonton International Airport.”
In the past, HRA, a private, not-for-profit corporation, received flow-through funding from the Alberta Lottery Fund, equivalent to 51.67 per cent of the net revenue from slot machine proceeds at racing entertainment centres. Under the new agreement, the percentage will be gradually reduced over three years to 40 per cent and will stay at that level through the life of the agreement, ending in 2026. Not one cent of tax dollars is used within this funding arrangement.
The new agreement means over time, less money from slot machines for the racing and breeding groups. But it also provides a business model where everyone knows what needs to be done to grow revenues and where there is greater certainty over what the costs of business will be.
“The funding agreement has brought a new sense of optimism and desire for investment into capital, infrastructure, and horse population in Alberta,” said Paul Ryneveld, the general manager of Century Downs Racetrack and Casino in Balzac, AB, a few kilometres north of Calgary. “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.”
All of this formed the backdrop for the return of thoroughbred racing to the Calgary market for the first time in nine years. The opening day of the fall meet on Sept. 23 featured a huge crowd that was as interested in renewing old friendships as it was in what took place on the racetrack. The 15-day fall meet ended on Nov. 5. It featured a handful of stakes races that provided both marketing opportunities, public entertainment, and promises of future growth. It gave Century Downs staff a chance to learn how to stage a different breed of racing after three seasons of offering just a harness product. And it allowed the public, the staff, and horsepeople alike a chance to evaluate what is going to be needed, going forward.
“From the point of view of horsemen, I was really pleased to see our product get back into the Calgary market,” horsemen’s representative, and long time trainer, Rod Cone said. “The racetrack turned out to be excellent. The barn space isn’t ideal, but we made it work. I know there’s a plan for a third barn and that’s good. It’s the same for the paddock and the jockeys’ room. And we’re all looking forward to seeing the lessons learned by Century Gaming, being applied to the new Century Mile facility in Leduc.
“The one thing I’ve been pleased about is the willingness of Paul (Ryneveld) to listen to our ideas. And we’re taking note that Century is not shy about spending money to market both racing and the general entertainment provided by the gaming component. That bodes well for the future.”
From the point of view of Century, the fall meet was both a learning experience and an indication there’s lots to build on, going forward.
“Not only was it exciting for me personally, it really gives those who used to participate in the industry the knowledge that they can once again participate through ownership, employment, and attending the races,” Ryneveld said. “Thoroughbred racing brought a lot of new faces to Century Downs and brought a lot of former fans back to the racetrack. When we had a good product and when we could fill out the fields, the handle was respectable in light of people seeing this product from Century Downs for the first time.
“We don’t have a lot of room, either in the racing entertainment centre or in the seating area for racing. This facility was not finished before it was opened but we have plans to expand it going forward. We’ve tried to do a good job on such things as food and beverage which are important to patrons. The feedback I’ve received from them is that they would like more covered seating areas outside, a race board that is up a little higher from the ground, and fuller fields of racehorses. Those are all things we can work on, moving forward.
“Now that we have some measureables from a 15-day meet, we can work on getting more days of racing in 2018 and beyond. It looks like the Canadian Derby will be at Northlands Park in Edmonton again next year. I’m hopeful we’ll get the Alberta Fall Classic which traditionally runs in September. Right now, we are down to get the thoroughbreds back to Century Downs sometime around Labour Day.
“Ultimately, we will leverage both tracks to further develop the Alberta thoroughbred product and improve wagering from outside the province. We will explore technology, paddock or racing hosts for our simulcasts, more information for fan development, and more. I’ve been pleased to see what has been wagered through the HPI program. To some extent, we think we can grow the live handle by offering different wagers that will be attractive to patrons. Some of that is going to depend on being able to grow the number of races and on the numbers of horses in each race. We have to continue to educate our fans on using digital technology to wager on races, not simply rely on lineups of fans at betting windows.
“We need to work on our off track shops to bet on our product, not just on what else is being offered. Again, to some extent, that comes down to fuller fields in our races. Growing the pools is key to growing the bet on our local product.”
Which brings us to the horse supply issue. This is an expensive sport for breeders and owners. The province says more than 1,600 jobs are directly attributable to the industry, adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy, especially the rural economy. That’s what makes the 10-year agreement so important. It provides a business model that allows these folks to manage their businesses with a little more certainty, knowing what the revenues and costs are likely to be.
The fledgling Alberta Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders group (ATOBA) stepped up with some funds to help make the highlight race of the season, the Oct. 22 Harvest Plate, a $100,000 fixture on the calendar. It has plans to make the Freedom of the City, that ran the same weekend, a race of equal value for the fillies. The two-year-old feature stakes have potential to be grown into something special, too. They traditionally have been fall races when the horses are just getting started in their racing careers and where the pundits can start to watch them as they prepare for their 3-year-old seasons.
So, there are a number of elements in place to help create a brighter future for one of Alberta’s oldest businesses. New facilities, a motivated racetrack operator, a renewal of the fan base and a bunch of owners and breeders that seem willing to look at new investment. All it’s going to take is a commitment to co-operate, a lot of work, and a little luck. But isn’t that what racing is all about?