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Excitement Is in the Air for Thoroughbred Opening

Apr 22,2022 Curtis Stock for Horse Racing Alberta

Purses are up. New stables are either coming back or making their debuts creating a viable horse population. The track surface itself has been redone. New jockeys are expected.

“All in all, it’s very positive,” Kent Verlik, chief executive officer for Horse Racing Alberta said of Saturday, April 30th opening day for the 2022 Alberta thoroughbred racing season at Century Mile. Post time is 3:45.

“People are optimistic. Outside of Ontario, Alberta is the place to be for racing horses in Canada.”

The purse increase tops the list of good news. “Last year, daily average purses for thoroughbred racing were $85,000. This year, we are projecting $110,000 a day,” said Dan Hurley, the new president of Alberta’s Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “That’s substantial.”

And it’s only going to get better said Verlik. “For all of horse racing - the Thoroughbred A meet at Century Mile, the Standardbred A meets at Calgary’s Century Downs and Century Mile, Grande Prairie’s Evergreen meet and Lethbridge’s Rocky Mountain Turf Club - Horse Racing Alberta is putting in $12.5 million for purses. Last year, it was $8.8 million. And we are projecting purse money to be $16 million in 2026."

“That’s very significant and it is very achievable.”

That purse money, Verlik said, comes from revenue generated in the racing entertainment centres at their racing facilities. “The future is very solid,” said Verlik. “Our off-track wagering numbers have grown. We saw some big handle numbers last year - numbers we haven’t seen before - and we expect more this year. “Money shouldn’t be a problem.”

Nor should the horse population. Verlik said Century Mile had 830 stall applications for the 54-day thoroughbred meet which runs until November 5. “We’re very excited about it,” said Allen Goodsell, Century Mile’s new Racing Manager. “We’ve got a nice supply of horses. A few trainers are coming back. And some new trainers are also headed here.”

One of those returning is trainer Robertino Diodoro, one of the top trainers in North America, who got his start in Alberta. Diodoro has applied for about 20 stalls. Greg Tracy is coming back with 25 stalls. Goodsell said both Milton Palmer and Barb Heads are also shipping a string of horses to Alberta from British Columbia. Other Alberta trainers have gone out and claimed new horses.

“It shows that the HBPA’s claiming incentive program is working,” said Goodsell. “The slots are coming in nice. It’s all good,” continued Goodsell.

The Grand Daddy of Alberta thoroughbred racing - the August 20 Canadian Derby - will also see a very healthy purse increase. While last year’s Derby purse was $125,000, this year it has swelled to $200,000. And it could be more.

“We’re still trying to find potential sponsors to get it to $250,000,” said Paul Ryneveld, Managing Director of Racing for Century Mile and Century Downs racetracks and casinos.

Ryneveld said there will also be an intriguing new wrinkle to the Derby. “This year the winner of the Canadian Derby gets an automatic exemption into the $150,000 Ontario Derby at Woodbine in October. “If a horse wins both those two races they get a $50,000 bonus. “We’re confident this will entice some Ontario horses to come to Century Mile for the Canadian Derby.

“Knock on wood there is no COVID this year and no smoke from forest fires so that we can focus from the start on having as many guests as possible attend the races this year. “COVID significantly impacted us the last two years. The racing and entertainment centres were shut down from the middle of December of 2020 to the end of May 2021,” continued Ryneveld. “That was almost six months of no revenue coming in. There seems to be an air of excitement across North America for horse racing. We’ll see if that’s a fact. If we can just get this crumby spring weather to end we’ll be alright. There’s good optimism everywhere. As I mentioned, purses are up significantly and so is the breed improvement program which will help breeders produce more race horses.”

As also mentioned, the track surface itself got a complete makeover. “It was too hard and too fast,” said Ryneveld. “We repaired the base which had become too compacted over the last three years. We also added sand and loam to the surface. When the mixture is correct, the track can take a lot of water. Adding the proper material is almost like a recipe. It’s a science. It’s not just throwing a bunch of dirt out there.”

Verlik said “Now when the horses are galloping you don’t hear a sound. The safety and the best interests of health and welfare of our equine athletes and participants is paramount. We want the track surface to be as safe as possible. It cost Century Mile a big chunk of cash. It’s a gorgeous surface now,” said Verlik.

“Everyone is excited and positive,” concluded Hurley, who has owned race horses for many years: first standardbreds in Prince Edward Island and then thoroughbreds in Alberta beginning over 20 years ago with highly successful trainer Dee Walper.

“I’ve always enjoyed horses and meeting a lot of people across the country. It’s a huge thrill when you get one of your horses to win. Whether it’s in a claiming race or a stakes race,” said Hurley, who has won two stakes in Alberta: Solo Ring in 2000 and Jazzy Song back in 2008.

“It’s a hobby to me and entertainment,” said Hurley, who started his own business, Hurley’s Meat Distributors in 1996 which his sons now run. “There are few things better than a day at the races.”

Century Mile opens with racing on Saturdays for the first two weeks. Then they go to a Friday/Saturday schedule beginning May 13. Post time on Fridays is 6:15 p.m. Saturdays cards all begin at 3:45 p.m.

Follow him on Twitter at CurtisJStock