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“Hey, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down.”
Those are lyrics from a Buffalo Springfield song of the late 1960’s. But I can’t get the song out of my mind when I look at the amazing story of horse racing wagering right here in Alberta because what’s going down is absolutely phenomenal. For the first 17 days of the thoroughbred/quarter horse meet at Century Mile the average daily was $693,262.05. That represents a staggering increase of 280.91 per cent over last year’s numbers. And then this past Sunday Century Mile set an all-time record one-day handle of $1.182 million on a card that didn’t even have a single stakes race on the card.
“Great!” succinctly summed up Paul Ryneveld, managing director of Edmonton’s Century Mile Racetrack and Casino and Calgary’s Century Downs Racetrack and Casino. “You have to go back to Canadian Derbies of yesterdays to find that kind of a handle in Alberta. And it wasn’t a strong card with six-horse fields for the first five races and two of those were for maiden two-year-olds.”
Ryneveld said two wagers were key on Sunday. The Pick 5, which had a two-day carry over, saw betting in excess of $214,000. And then when a longshot, Piper’s Joy ($26.10), won the first leg of the Pick 5 and knocked out a lot of bettors, the handicappers went right back to bet the Late Pick 4 to the tune of about $90,000. “Those two bets represented $300,000 of the total wagering for the card,” said Ryneveld.
Harness racing at Calgary’s Century Downs is also well ahead of last year with the $177,166 average for the first 17 days up 70 per cent from a year ago. “It’s a positive for sure,” said Fred Gillis, executive director for the Alberta Standardbred Horsemen’s Association. “You want bigger pools so that other tracks will take you and that people can bet more without affecting the odds. We’ve had a steady growth of 7-8 per cent each year and last year was a record season but this is exceptional.”
“I’ve been blown away by the handle the two tracks have been generating,” said Kent Verlik, Chief Executive Officer for Horse Racing Alberta. “It’s been amazing.”
Norm Castiglione, president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association said “The handle at Century Mile in particular is a great story. Including Sunday’s handle the average is now over $700,000 a day. That’s a huge increase.”
“And all that is happening in the middle of a pandemic,” Verlik said of Covid-19 which initially didn’t allow any fans at all and, even now, only allows 200 patrons to make use of the outside grandstand apron. And to think how in the middle of March everything was so bleak. All of our OTBs (off-track-betting) locations were shut down too. We lost three months and 24 race days with no racing at all because of Covid-19. We had no idea what was going to happen.”
“We didn’t know then if we were even going to be able to race. But we worked closely with the government and we were able to open under Phase 2 protocols on June 12 with our first thoroughbred race day on June 26. Otherwise we would have been looking at Phase 3 sometime in September. We made a pitch to government that we could follow all the protocols; we made a proposal and they agreed,” said Verlik. “You have to give a lot of credit to our track operators and horsemen. Our industry stake holders are very resilient. Other tracks, like Turf Paradise, have shut down.”
With horse racing opening in Alberta while almost every other professional sport, except for golf, was sidelined, the increase in wagering probably wasn’t all that surprising. Horse racing was the only game in town. But with professional hockey, baseball and basketball having returned there was certainly the expectation that horse racing handles would level off. Sunday’s handle of $1,181,817 blew away those concerns. “It would be hard to see any correlation to our handle (with the return of professional sports),” said Ryneveld. “It hasn’t affected us. The previous Sunday we bet just under $1 million.”
Verilk said horse racing’s fiscal position is now in the best position it has been for at least a decade. “We might not even have a deficit by the end of this year,” he said. “Last year was a really bad year. But now we’ll be in a position to improve purses and breed improvement. We made some changes. We had to make some cuts. But now things look really bright for next year.”
So what exactly is going on here? Castiglione said the post times for the two-day-a-week racing schedule (Friday nights at 7:15 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. on Sundays) are key. “Century has done a great job of finding a time slot that doesn’t (compete) against larger tracks has given bettors across North America to look at.” However, it isn’t like the tracks and horsemen and owners are now rolling in the dough. Money bet on Alberta races off track, which is by far the case, is a low-margin revenue angle.
“Horsemen and the tracks split 3 per cent of foreign or export handle while we get 15 per cent to split on money bet on track,” said Gillis. “If they bet $100,000 on foreign or export simulcasts we get $3,000. If they bet $20,000 on track we get the same $3,000.”
“If we bet $750,000 we basically break even for the cost of the day of horse racing,” said Ryneveld. “At $182,000 which we averaged last year we were losing $5,000 every time we raced. So obviously this is a much healthier position. A month ago, Global TV in Calgary did a story on businesses in Calgary that have seen a positive impact from Covid-19. Horse racing was one of them. It’s amazing how well it’s going.”
Instead of people in the stands betting, betting on horse racing these days now consists of betting live streamed races online at sites like HorsePlayerInteractive.com in Canada, on simulcast feeds like TVG, Twin Spires and Xpress Bet at other racing jurisdictions and at off-track betting sites.
But it’s definitely working. “The commissions aren’t huge but what is happening in Alberta tells us there is still a future here,” said Castiglione. “It’s a confirmation that the sport is still being watched by huge numbers of people.”
Ryneveld, who noted that slot machine revenues are also ahead of expectations, said thoroughbred racing can still use more horses. “Field size matters to a great degree. We’re averaging 7.34 horses per race this year. Our goal is 8. Last year we were only at 6.8 horses per field.” Ryneveld expects that to increase especially when Assiniboia Downs closes for the season on Sept. 15.
“We expect to get some horses from Winnipeg. We currently have 597 thoroughbreds on the grounds so we shouldn’t be having any trouble putting cards together,” said Castiglione. With an abundant horse supply, harness racing doesn’t have that problem at all. “The standardbreds are regularly going with 9-horse fields and 10-12 races a day,” said Verlik.
“Especially considering the times we are in, we’re having a big year because of the incredible entrepreneurial drive and resilience of our racetrack operators and horsemen,” concluded Verlik. “What we were budgeting for we are on the plus side. At the end of the year our fiscal position should be very strong. It’s a much better position than I ever would have imagined.”
Follow him on Twitter at CurtisJStock