The future of thoroughbred horse racing in Edmonton is in the hands of the provincial government, as the current terms of the province’s Racing Industry Renewal Initiative expires on March 31.

Industry officials are optimistic that an agreement with the government will be reached and that there will be live racing through the entire 2016 calendar year. However, the length of the new agreement and the amount of funding that the industry will receive is uncertain at press time.

“We are in discussions with the Government of Alberta regarding the renewal of our memorandum of understanding with them,” said Shirley McClellan, chief executive officer of Horse Racing Alberta. “That’s a normal course of events when an agreement comes to a conclusion.”

“We began harness racing at Century Downs on February 14, with thoroughbred racing at Northlands Park and the Rocky Mountain Turf Club set to begin in early May. We’re looking forward to a great season of racing.”

Introduced in 1996, the Racing Industry Renewal Initiative allowed the horse racing industry to receive a portion of slot revenues generated at racetrack facilities. As part of the current agreement, which went into effect in 2006, Horse Racing Alberta receives 51.66 per cent of the net win from slot machines at racetrack facilities, with 33.33 per cent going to the provincial government and 15 per cent going to the racetrack facilities themselves. According to figures from the Alberta Gaming & Liquor Commission, there are 1,310 slot machines at four racetracks throughout the province, including 550 at both Northlands Park and Century Downs.

According to Horse Racing Alberta’s 2014 annual report, the slots program generated nearly $21.2 million for the industry that year, which made up 73 per cent of Horse Racing Alberta’s total revenue. From that, almost $11.2 million was distributed to racetracks through grants that were comprised of a percentage of slot revenue, pari-mutuel handle, and additional industry support, while another $9 million was invested back into the industry through purse grants for both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing.

Horse Racing Alberta’s 2015 figures were not yet available at press time, but Northlands Park operated a 75-day meet in 2015 and distributed over $8.6 million in total thoroughbred purses as the province’s lone thoroughbred ‘A’ track.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the industry at this point in time, Dr. Steve Smith, president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Alberta, is confident that there will be thoroughbred racing at Northlands Park in 2016 and beyond.

“I fully anticipate that we’ll race at Northlands this year, and I anticipate that we’ll be racing there in 2017 as well, as long as the memorandum of understanding is forthcoming from the government,” he said. “I’m quite confident that will be the case.”

However, Smith noted that the uncertainty surrounding the industry’s future in Alberta has caused some uneasiness among the province’s horsemen. So much so that several trainers have already indicated to Smith that they will be relocating their operations for the upcoming racing season.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now in the entire industry in Alberta,” he said. “Generally speaking, I’m an optimist, so I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of the industry in Alberta, but definitely there’s some apprehension amongst our owners. I’m aware of three or four trainers that are not coming back this year. I guess it’s unfortunate. Any time there’s uncertainty, it’s not good for the industry.”

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the province has seen a dramatic shift in the make up of its provincial government, stemming from last year’s election. The Alberta Progressive Conservatives had won every provincial election since 1971, but were defeated by new Premier Rachel Notley and the New Democratic Party in May. Smith said having to educate a new government on the specifics of the horse racing industry has presented some speed bumps while trying to come to a new agreement.

“They’ve had a steep learning curve,” he said. “Not just with respect to racing, but with respect to everything. When I spoke to the Minister of Finance (Joe Ceci) and his Chief of Staff (Nathan Rotman), they had a pretty good handle on the racing industry. The Chief of Staff seemed to be aware of what happened in Ontario and indicated that he wanted to avoid that kind of situation.”

That situation was the announcement of the cancellation of Ontario’s Slots at Racetracks Program by the provincial government in 2012. Ontario’s horse racing industry is still supported by the government financially through a short-term transitional funding agreement, although the level of funding the industry receives is smaller than what it saw while the slots-at-racetracks program was in effect. While Smith has not been involved directly in the negotiations with the Alberta’s provincial government on a new agreement, he said it’s possible the industry will receive a smaller percentage of the slots revenue going forward.

“I’m not privy to that information, but when I did speak to the Minister, I anticipate there will be some change,” he said. “At the same time, he indicated that they were supportive of the industry, so I’m hoping it’s not too dramatic of a change. Our provincial government is facing pretty difficult times right now too, so I’m sure they’re looking at every industry.”

Assuming the industry and the government can come to an agreement on a new memorandum of understanding, the thoroughbred industry could feature two tracks on the ‘A’ circuit on a go forward basis. Smith said thoroughbred ‘A’ racing at Century Downs in Balzac could begin in the very near future in conjunction with Northlands Park, which has already confirmed 55 days of racing through the end of August.

“I think it’s quite possible that we will race at Century Downs, possibly this year, but more likely in 2017,” he said. “For the last seven years, Northlands has been our sole thoroughbred ‘A’ track operator. They’ve been great through that time. Like everyone, they’re facing uncertainty as well, but I’m fairly confident that there will be horse racing at Northlands on a go forward basis.”

For now, the industry will be forced to wait, as the government could announce a potential new agreement at any point before the March 31 deadline.