And…They’re Off!

Photo by Megan Lemoine.

It was news that Alberta’s racing industry had been dreading for months. Rumours of the closure of Edmonton’s Northlands Park racetrack were proven true on February 17 at a press conference hosted by Northlands president and CEO Tim Reid.

“2016 will be our last year in the horse racing business,” Reid said to the room crowded with press, industry officials and dignitaries. “As the realities of change have impacted Northlands, we needed to think about our entire site.”

The decision to close down the track is part of the 136-year-old north Edmonton venue’s $165-million redevelopment plan. Entitled “Vision 2020,” it’s a plan that Reid described as a ‘new path’ for Northlands, and brings to a close well over a century of horse racing in Alberta’s capital. The grandstand, stables and casino will be torn down in favour of a huge urban gathering space capable of hosting crowds of upwards of 140,000 people.

Northlands has been an agro-ex venue for longer than Alberta’s been a province. Founded in 1879, the multi-use park hosts thousands of events that attract millions of visitors annually — most notably the Canadian Finals Rodeo and the annual K-Days summer exhibition.

It’s also home to the venerable Northlands Park racetrack, one of a handful of grandstands still offering horse racing in Alberta, and one of only four offering thoroughbred racing in the province. “It’s a huge historical loss,” said Shirley McClellan, chief executive officer of Horse Racing Alberta (HRA.) “They have been a very strong racing partner in this province for all those many years.”

It’s been a tough couple of years for Northlands. The ‘change’ Reid spoke of at the press conference is the controversial decision by the Edmonton Oilers to relocate from the Northlands-situated Rexall Place to the under-construction Rogers Place arena — a move expected to take place by the time the puck drops on the 2016–17 hockey season.

Across Canada, the mood among owners and trainers is decidedly grim. A trainer of champion thoroughbreds for the past 35 years, Toronto’s Andrew Smith tries hard to keep a cautious level of optimism in an industry that, over the years, he’s seen go nowhere but down. “I won’t say we don’t have hope, but we don’t have any real enthusiasm for the business at the moment,” he said. “Part of it is the economy, but most of it is the uncertainty.”

Currently manning stables at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack, Smith says this uncertainty is shared in tracks and paddocks across the country, making investors wary about placing their bets on a business they fear will pull up lame past the eighth pole. “If we had some certainty that, five years down the road, we’d have a decent purse structure, it would make all the difference,” he said.

For Alberta’s Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier, saying he understands the loss of Northlands Park isn’t mere political lip service. With a brother-in-law a jockey at the racetrack, the Whitecourt-Ste. Anne MLA told Canadian Cowboy Country he’s truly saddened by the track’s closure.

“I recognize the importance of horse racing in Alberta,” he said. “It provides jobs and entertainment, but it’s also an important part of our culture, too.”

It’s the issue of revenues — flowing both into and out of government coffers — that’s of concern to the industry these days.

Across Canada, many tracks have turned to slot machines to shore up lagging pari-mutuel revenues. According to the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC,) tracks keep 15 per cent of net slot machine revenue, while the rest goes into the Alberta Lottery Fund.

From there 18 1/3 per cent lottery fund proceeds assist the province’s racetracks with their capital and operating costs, and 33 1/3 per cent boost horse racing purses via the Alberta Racing Corporation.

Meanwhile in Ontario, allegations of waste and a lack of transparency led to big changes in their racetrack slot program. Instead of splitting revenues with individual operators, the province takes the whole pot and splits it evenly among racetracks.

A controversial decision at the time, some worried that track slot parlours would draw operators away from the track in favour of bustling casino rooms. Others praised the increased revenue, as well as the potential for introducing the sport to a whole new audience.

Smith, however, hasn’t seen a lot of intermingling between the two groups. “Slots cater to a different crop of people,” Smith said. “What we don’t get is a lot of people crossing over from the slots to the windows to bet on the horses.”

Smith’s observations align with what many experts are saying — while slot machines do increasing attendance at racetrack facilities, they don’t necessarily translate to longer lines at betting windows. “People just don’t connect with the horses like they used to,” he said.

“Betting on horses… I won’t say it’s complicated, but to be any good at it takes some study and a lot of time to learn.” Across Canada, many struggling tracks are those in close proximity to the U.S. border. In recent years, Ontario shuttered casinos at its tracks in Fort Erie, Windsor and Sarnia — largely due to fewer American bettors coming north to play.

“Fort Erie’s been on life support the past eight or 10 years now,” Smith said. “For Standardbred, they’re down to 33 to 35 days a year.”

Cross-border competition has made life at Fort Erie Race Track become increasingly dire. “At one point I’d go into the parking lot at Fort Erie and it’d be full of New York licence plates,” Smith said. “That just doesn’t happen anymore.”

Back in Alberta, racing’s influence stretches far beyond just rural interests. According to the HRA, racing represents a $399-million annual economic benefit in Alberta — $214 million of which having a direct impact on the over 400 farms and ranches directly involved in the sport.

“They are a huge contributor, both in entertainment and jobs and employment,” the HRA’s Shirley McClellan said. “In Alberta, there’s over 7,000 people that are involved in this industry, either directly or indirectly.”

In light of the uncertainty, track closures and fewer annual race days, life can become downright challenging for those who owe their livelihoods to racing.

While working at a large venue like Woodbine grants a greater degree of job security, Smith’s nomadic life is an occupational hazard for trainers — whom he says enjoy better job standards than their American counterparts. “When American trainers come to Woodbine, they rave at how well we’re treated,” he chuckles. “This is something you have to love to keep with it.” Track closures impact everybody; trainers move on, owners sell horses — but, Smith says, life goes on. That’s just the reality of the business.

Thankfully, it isn’t all doom and gloom at Canada’s racetracks. While numbers certainly weren’t what they were a decade ago, attendance is on the upswing, climbing as tracks work hard to attract younger crowds to the grandstands.

Minister Carlier said in spite of changes in Alberta’s rural culture, people will always be there to take advantage of the entertainment it has to offer. “Specifically with the rodeos, numbers were actually up this year,” he said.

Just north of Calgary, the industry celebrated the opening of Century Downs last April — the area’s first taste of racing since Stampede Park shut down their race program in 2008.

Once Century Downs begins their Thoroughbred program this fall, McClellan said they’ll be in a position to take on many of the races hosted by Northlands Park, including the Canadian Derby. “Northlands certainly felt the impact when Stampede Park quit racing, we leaned on them pretty heavily,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult, but we did do it before, and we’ll be working with our industry to look at how we move forward.”

Fortuitously, racing in the capital region may not end with Northlands Park. Both McClellan and Carlier talked enthusiastically of outside stakeholders interested in taking over where Northlands Park left off.

While conceding that the glory days of Canadian horse racing are indeed in the backstretch, Smith doesn’t see the industry going away altogether. “It is changing, it’s shrinking definitely, but I still think there’s good entertainment value there,” he said. “As for the future, I think it’s getting smaller, but I don’t think it’ll disappear completely.”