09/21/2017 10:56AM

Thoroughbred racing in Alberta begins new chapter at Century Downs

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A new era in horse racing in Alberta begins Saturday with the inaugural 16-day Thoroughbred meet at Century Downs Racetrack and Casino, located just north of Calgary in Balzac.

It will be the first time Thoroughbreds have raced in the Calgary area since Cerveza Tom won the last race at Stampede Park on June 15, 2008.

It wasn’t supposed to be this long between races.

In 2004, Horse Racing Alberta, the government-appointed body that manages horse racing in Alberta, took the racing license away from Stampede Park and gave the rights to conduct racing to the company United Horsemen of Alberta. UHA said it would have the new facility running in 2007, including a one-mile track for Thoroughbreds and a seven-furlong track for Standardbreds. But due to myriad problems, including issues with getting water rights to the property, the project stalled. The main reason for the delay in building Century Downs, though, was that the original estimate of $80 million to get the track running had skyrocketed to $260 million.

:: Get bonus PPs and watch Saturday's card live from Century Downs

In order to get the financial backing needed to build the facility, UHA partnered with Century Casinos Inc., a Colorado-based casino company which now owns 75 percent of UHA.

Century Downs opened in 2015 with Standardbred racing and 550 slot machines.

Paul Ryneveld, the general manager, has been in charge of the project since 2013.

Ryneveld has extensive experience in the racing industry. He was director of racetrack operations at Sunland Park from 2001-04; director of racing at Emerald Downs from 2004-07; equine manager at Fairplex in 2007-08; and director of racing at Hastings from 2008-13.

Ryneveld also is overseeing the building by Century Casinos of a one-mile track in the Edmonton area, Century Mile. Century Mile is slated to open for Thoroughbreds in 2019. Standardbreds could race there next fall.

“With the two new tracks, it is an exciting time for racing in Alberta,” Ryneveld said.

Ryneveld isn’t sure how the racing dates will be set up in the future. A lot of trainers would love to see Thoroughbreds racing exclusively at Century Mile and Standardbreds holding fort at Century Downs.

“We learned from the Standardbreds that in order to grow the business you need to race at both sites,” Ryneveld said. “Once we started [Standardbred] racing at Century Downs, owners in the Calgary area started to get back into the business. I am expecting the same for the Thoroughbreds.”

Due to space limitations, at the most there will be 550 stalls at Century Downs. With more room for horses planned for Century Mile, Ryneveld envisions the Alberta Thoroughbred circuit starting its season there.

“It probably makes sense to start the year at Century Mile, where we will have 800 stalls,” Ryneveld said. “It allows more horses to train at the track to get ready for the spring meet. The prime summer days will be at Century Mile. Also, because of the weather in southern Alberta, it allows us to run later in the year at Century Downs.”

Since Stampede Park closed, the only “A” track in operation in Alberta has been Northlands Park in Edmonton, which will close after the 2018 racing season.

Northlands recently completed its 2017 meeting with declines from last year of 7 percent in daily all-sources handle ($254,013) and 8 percent in ontrack live handle ($67,334). The all-sources total from the 54-day meet was $13,716,745. In 2016, $18,889,951 was wagered over 69 days.

“Northlands has been a proud partner in the racing industry for years, and we look forward to bridging the gap until the new racetrack is built,” said Scott Sinclair, director of racing and gaming at Northlands.