Century Downs Racetrack and Casino: A Look Back at How it All Began

Oct 14,2017 Sandra Rexilius

“Ask me what I can do with $5,000 and a cell phone…”

That’s what the back of his T-Shirt said.  It was the understatement of the century…

The story of this race track is a tale of grit and sacrifice, intensity, disappointment, and exhaustion, but ultimately love, joy, relief, reward, glory and triumph – essentially, it encompasses the true fabric of life. 

April 2002

Dwight McLellan learned about the thrill and excitement of horse racing through his father, Roy McLellan, and his own winning experience as a young man with a Manitoba Derby winning horse named Bye Birdie Bye.  He was a land developer whose passion, vision, and inspiration from his father led to the unimaginable quest of building a new horse race track on a pasture in Balzac, Alberta

An avid owner and horse racing fan, Roy had been involved in the racing industry review spearheaded by Alberta Racing Corporation (now Horse Racing Alberta).  He brought Dwight on board to present the project potential from a land developer’s perspective. 

At his father’s suggestion to “put something on paper and submit it to the committee”, Dwight gathered around him Chartered Professional Accountant and Hospitality Accounting Executive, Ralph Miller, and Project Manager and Writer, Sandra Rexilius, and embarked upon putting together an Expression of Interest for the Class “A” racetrack license for Calgary.  Little did this trio know it would affect 117 years of horse racing history and change the face of the sport in the Province of Alberta forever.

2002 to 2007

The Expression of Interest was accepted and the team was invited to prepare and present their proposal to build a new horse racing facility.  The United Horsemen of Alberta (UHA) were born. 

From day one Dwight challenged everyone who eventually became involved in UHA to “shoot for the moon”; and that’s what they did.  He assembled a masterful team of architects with strategic perspective (Donald Dissinger, Ewing Cole Sports & Entertainment and John Riddell of Riddell Kurczaba), industry leaders (Max Gibb, Rocky Mountain Turf Club), and land development and construction managers, along with horse racing industry participants (CTHS and ASHA), horsemen, as well as both provincial and municipal governments to masterplan a Racing Entertainment Centre which would feature not only a premiere racetrack, but also shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment facilities.  Dwight amassed 800 acres of raw land in East Balzac as a home for this magical facility, and he brought together investors and industry partners to financially support the project.  In October 2004, the Class “A” racetrack license was awarded to UHA; the dream became a real project, and land development efforts went into full production.  (A partnership with Ivanhoe Cambridge resulted in the mall known as CrossIron Mills which opened its doors to delighted shoppers on August 19, 2009.)

2007 to 2017

In 2007, the project reins were taken over by Darcy Marler.  Though the road to construction was fraught with many challenges, Dwight’s can-do attitude and vision prevailed and, with the unending support of the Board of Directors and investors of the United Horsemen of Alberta, as well as the continued leadership of Horse Racing Alberta, a partnership with Century Casinos Inc. was ushered in.  The eventual build-out of the facility known today as Century Downs Racetrack and Casino is the rewarding result.  It opened its doors to live standardbred racing on April 25, 2015 and live thoroughbred racing on September 23, 2017. 

Dwight may not have seen his vision come to fruition, but his dream lives on with every pounding hoof and excited horse racing fan!