08/20/2014 1:51PM

Northlands Park handle up despite fewer racing days


The sun shined bright on the large crowd at last Saturday’s Canadian Derby, and the future of horse racing in Alberta also is looking bright. According to Northlands general manager Chris Roberts, through last Saturday, the all-sources live handle of $12,553,482 was up 6 percent despite the track having raced only 44 days, compared with 50 days at this point last year.

The daily average is up 20 percent, to $285,306 from $237,479. Canadian Derby Day is by far the biggest day of the year at Northlands. A total of $1,257,444 was bet on this year’s 13-race card, compared with $1,160,651 in 2013.

What really has Roberts excited is the 15 percent increase in average daily ontrack live handle.

“The ontrack number is a true indication of how you are able to capture your marketplace,” said Roberts. “Our ‘Friday Night at the Park’ concept has worked very well in getting young people to the track, and we’re seeing a lot of them bleeding out on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I only know this anecdotally, but I’m pretty sure our biggest increases ontrack are coming from a younger fan base with lots of discretionary income. They are also turning up for targeted events. Basically, we’re getting more bums into the seats.”

Roberts, 33, has been the general manager since 2011. He has put together a strong management team that shares his exuberance for racing. He’s been working at racetracks since he was 8.

“My grandfather was a vet, so I got dragged around all over the place,” said Roberts. “My first job at the track was stripping saddle bags off harness horses for $10 a day at Dresden, a tiny little track in Ontario. I’ve loved being involved in the sport ever since.”

Century Downs to open in 2015

There also will be new money directed toward the horse-racing industry when Century Downs Racetrack and Casino opens next spring in southern Alberta. The 5 1/2-furlong track is located in Balzac, a suburb of Calgary. Dates for the first meet have yet to be determined, but according to general manager Paul Ryneveld, the track should be ready to go by March. The track will open with just 110 stalls, which works for harness horses shipping in.

“Racing will commence when we are awarded dates by Horse Racing Alberta,” said Ryneveld. “We are working with representatives of the racing industry as a whole regarding stabling and training. It is premature to say how many stalls will eventually be available until some questions regarding the site and industry needs are worked out.”

Ryneveld is optimistic that Thoroughbreds will be able to run at Century Downs in 2016.

It is a far cry from the one-mile track promised by the United Horsemen of Alberta in 2007, but at least there will be harness racing to start, and some of the money generated from the casino will be directed to the horse-racing industry. Under current agreements, 51 percent of the slots revenue at Northlands, Lethbridge, and Grande Prairie is allocated to the industry through grants by Horse Racing Alberta. The grant agreement between Horse Racing Alberta and the government expires at the end of 2016.

The biggest complaint from horsemen stabled at Northlands is the run-down condition of the aging barn area. Northlands will be asking Horse Racing Alberta for help in revitalizing the stabling area.

“If we are going to continue to be the main stabling area for the industry, we are going to need to improve our barn area,” said Roberts. “We expect Horse Racing Alberta to allocate funds in that regard.”