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Off to the races

While other pro sports remain on hold, horse racing has resumed in Edmonton and Calgary. Photo: Anthony Houle

No pucks on the ice.

No footballs in the air.

No slam dunks, free kicks or home runs.

While the major-league-sports world is currently without the National Hockey League, Canadian Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball there are two sports that have managed to start up again: The Professional Golf Association and horse racing.

Every other elite sport has been put on hold because of COVID-19.

“It’s a great time for horse racing to capitalize on the void,” said Paul Ryneveld, managing director of Edmonton’s Century Mile Racetrack and Casino and Calgary’s Century Downs Racetrack and Casino.

“It’s absolutely a big opportunity to recapture the interest of people that used to follow horse racing but left 30 years ago to other forms of gambling and never came back.

“We’re seeing that with the wagering numbers.

“People can’t bet on other sports. But they can bet on horse racing and that’s what they are doing.”

As an example, Manitoba’s Assiniboia Downs was the first Canadian racetrack to open. They bet $1,067,221 on their May 27 opening card and that was on just six races. It was just short of the all-time record of $1,106,999 wagered on the 2016 Manitoba Derby. The next day they shattered the record with a handle of $1,623,516.

Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack bet $5,553,767 on their opening day card, June 6. That easily eclipsed last year’s opening day handle of $4,084,572.

Century Mile opened it’s starting gate with thoroughbred racing on June 21 while Century Downs opened June 22 with harness racing.

Wagering on the thoroughbred opener at Century Mile was $571,000.

By comparison the average handle last year was $172,422.

“We picked it up late. It’s positive; a lot worked. We can improve in some areas,” said Matt Jukich, Century Mile’s racing manager.

In Edmonton and Calgary - like most North American tracks - the races were conducted without any spectators. Even owners weren’t allowed to attend.

Instead racing fans bet on the live streamed races online at and on simulcast feeds at other racing jurisdictions and at off-track betting sites.

The races were also simulcast on the website.

“It’s a different way of doing business,” said Jukich.

“But this is a whole-new world.”

“We all want to get back to having fans on the tarmac and in the clubhouse,” said Kent Verlik, Chief Executive Officer for Horse Racing Alberta.

“We want to have the fans cheering their horses on and for live crowds to hear the the thunder of the horses on the track.

“Despite everything we’ve gone through, this could be a very good year. A lot of people were worried we would have any racing at all.”

“We were all in the dark,” agreed trainer Jerri Robertson, whose barn is headed by last year’s Horse of the Year Smart Fix.

“You work your whole life to get a good stable and then COVID-19 comes. For so long nobody knew when we were going to be able to race again.

“When I started training on January 23 at an indoor arena south of Calmar, we were thinking that we’d be racing in April. We got our horses fit and then the virus happened.

“You really have to credit the owners for sticking with us. It hasn’t been easy on them, paying training bills and not knowing what was going on.”

Robertson said thoroughbred trainers and owners also both had to credit Century Mile.

“They did their best to keep keep us there. We could train five days a week and the track was good all spring.”

“Everybody wanted to get going,” said Verlik. “A lot of work went into it. The horsemen, the owners and the track operators all came together in a great way. I’m proud of the work they did.

“They wanted us to move heaven and earth and that’s what we did so here we are.”

Curtis Stock writes about sports and leisure for Alberta Prime Times.

Follow me on Twitter at CurtisJStock