The opening of Century Mile in Edmonton means much more than just a new racetrack for horse crazy Alberta.
For more than a decade the word ‘stability’ didn’t exist in any lexicon or sentence pertaining to horse racing in Alberta. Instead, horse racing in that province was a flimsy house of cards teetering in a stiff breeze.
First, Calgary’s Stampede Park ceased racing in 2008. Then, last fall, Northlands Park in Edmonton — after 116 consecutive years of racing — shuttered its doors, too.
In between, Century Downs — an oft on-again, off-again, on-again project — opened in 2015 in Balzac, just north of Calgary, but even then, it would still be two more years until the thoroughbreds ran there.
Then something much bigger happened. On Sunday, April 28, Century Mile — also owned by Century Casinos Inc. — opened its doors with an estimated crowd of 5,000 packing the new one-mile racetrack and casino — the anticipation so great that, with first post still an hour away, traffic going to the facility was backed up more than a kilometre. With both the main and auxiliary parking lots full, traffic was directed to the nearby Premium Outlet Collection mall where shuttle vans collected racing fans.
“We started with eight buses and we ended up with 14,” said Century Mile casino manager Kevan Schell. “They went non-stop.”
“That Sunday marked the return of stability to horse racing,” said Dr. Steve Smith, past-president of the Alberta Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
“Until then, no one was really confident in what was going to happen. People are always sceptical until they see the finished product.
“It was a great opening.
“It was a turning point for a lot of people because we’ve lost a lot of breeders — probably as much as half — over the last decade. And we lost a lot of owners, too.
“The next step would be seeing people committed to raising and owning horses again.”
Brian Bygrave, a vice-president of the HBPA, couldn’t agree more.
“We’ve got a facility now that is committed to racing. The Alberta government has a 10-year racing and entertainment centre agreement with Horse Racing Alberta.
“The second part is that the horsemen, the HBPA, have a four-year racing agreement with Century Casinos, the track operators in each of the two cities.
“The agreements are finished, signed and in place. And there’s no reason they can’t be renewed,” said Bygrave.
“The last 15 years or so we’ve been operating on continual one-year agreements.
“Horsemen now know where they are racing. It’s all a go now. We’re finally on solid ground — a place we haven’t been on for a long, long time.”
“It’s the best thing that has happened for horse racing for many years,” said veteran thoroughbred trainer and former jockey Rick Hedge.
“It’s been a slow death at Northlands for the last 10 years.
“A new track is perfect and a mile track is ideal. We’ll probably get horses from Vancouver that will want to come and run here.”
Leading Alberta trainer Tim Rycroft, also a vice-president of the Alberta HBPA, said, “After a long time of uncertainty it’s a real shot in the arm for thoroughbred racing. I think we’re on the road to recovery.”
“A lot of people never thought Century Mile would happen,” said Kent Verlik, chief executive officer with Horse Racing Alberta. “Many of those are the same people that thought Northlands would never close.
“Get on the bus because it’s happening.”
As well as the one-mile track — the only Class A track like that outside of Ontario — Century Mile, a $63-million project, has plenty to offer.
On the main level there is a slot parlour with 550 machines. That area opened early in April and has already produced solid numbers virtually doubling Northlands, which had several nearby competitors for slot machine revenue. Century Mile, on the other hand, is a largely untapped, unserviced market with no nearby competition.
The main structure of Century Mile is 88,000 square feet which is about twice the size of Century Downs. Of that, 63,000 square feet is devoted to horse racing.
“We’re a racetrack with a casino, not the other way around,” said Paul Ryneveld, managing director of racing entertainment centres at both Century Mile and Century Downs.
As well as the slot parlour on the main level, there are also full-size restaurants and bars, a sports-viewing lounge and a 60-seat, Off-Track Betting centre for off-track wagering.
The second level also has an OTB — this one capable of holding well over 150 bettors.
As well, the second level has a 408-seat dining room and a 350-seat grandstand.
The second level also has a multi-purpose room, a private function area and three suites which seat over 80 people in each suite or can be opened to one 260-seat area. Each suite has its own balcony.
Ryneveld said the suites give Century Mile a great opportunity for group sales.
There is also a roof-top patio which will open when the weather warms up.
Two barns hold 400 horses each.
The track surface itself has drawn such rave reviews that trainer Rod Cone said “I haven’t heard one negative thing about the surface. That’s unusual because horsemen generally always find something to complain about. Personally, I think the track is fantastic. It’s level and it’s got a good slope to it; I’ve never had a track to train on during the spring that was this good.”
Ryneveld said there are many goals, but two of the biggest are to raise both the overnight purse structure
and the purses for major stakes races.
“With the casino we believe that is going to happen. Northlands was averaging $5-$6-million coin-in per week. Century Mile is already doing $10-$11-million per week.
“The slots at the racing-entertainment centre will generate the lion’s share of the purse structure.
“The other side is the handle. The horsemen get their largest share from the live handle. Then there is the money generated from full-card simulcasting at off-track betting locations and finally there is selling the signal to other tracks which I believe is like found money.
“Horse racing is a fragile economy. It’s fragile enough that a big negative hit can send it on a downward spiral but one good stimulus can turn it around.”
Everything is inter-related.
“When the pursues go up so does the horse supply and when the horse supply goes up the racing gets better because you have fuller fields,” said Ryneveld. “And when you have bigger fields the handle goes up again.”
As for bigger purses for the major races, Century Mile has already increased the purse for the Aug. 18 Canadian Derby. Originally advertised as a $150,000 race, the Derby for 3-year-olds going a mile and a quarter will now go for $250,000.
Century Casinos have added $50,000 to the Derby’s purse on their own while racing manager Matt Jukich said the Alberta Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association have sold sponsorships for another $50,000.
But that’s just a start.
Ryneveld said he’d like to see the Derby go for $300-$400,000 — or even more — and attract top horses from across Canada and the U.S.
“At $400-$500,000 when you have a mile race track, I think you’ll start to draw the type of horses that might
have been on the Triple Crown trail and really put this facility on the map.”
The Derby is the only Grade 3 race in Alberta. Ryneveld would like to see more of them.
As a start, Ryneveld said there will be two $100,000 races for 2-year-olds when the horses go to Century Downs after the 51-day meet at Century Mile ends on Aug. 26.
“Why can’t we do more things with more events built around racing?
“Calgary was successful with the Mid-Summer Classic built around two harness races — the Ralph Klein and the Gordon Rumpel.
“We should be able to do that with the Derby on Aug. 18 and the Century Casino Oaks and the Distaff both on Aug. 17.”
For that matter Ryneveld would like to see at least one big event a month tied to racing which will bring out fans.
Century Mile has also reduced the takeout.
Win, place and show wagering will now have a 14.75 per cent takeout which makes it the lowest in North America. (It was 17 per cent at Northlands).
Even better, the take out on the Pick 5 and Hi 5 pools will be just 10 per cent and 15 per cent on Pick 3 and Pick 4 bets as opposed to 26.8 per cent at Northlands.
“I think Century Mile has done a fantastic job,” said former Horse Racing Alberta CEO Shirley McClellan, who shepherded the long process of getting a new track built.
“They first stepped into the racing arena in Calgary and took
a leap of faith.
“When Northlands said they wanted out of horse racing it was a huge surprise.
“At that time we were still excited about finally having a new track in Calgary and finally having some stability again. Then Northlands decided to exit and everyone’s heart stopped again.
“Those were interesting times to say the least.
“Everyone agrees that this is the opportunity for Alberta racing to regain its place in high quality horse racing. It used to be the biggest ticket in town,” she said of the days when Northlands would regularly see million-dollar handles and, at one time, used to have the highest per-capita wagering in North America.
“There were times when people questioned whether we would ever get this done. We were always confident, but there was still a lot of noise,” said Ryneveld.
“Now we don’t have to worry about that. The biggest thing that came out of opening day was that we are
now open. Now let’s get going.”