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Around the backstretch at Century Mile anticipation is high that the horsemen will get the official word sometime in the next 48 hours that horseracing will be the first pro sports entity to return from COVID-19.
Obviously they got the word.
“At least we know we are racing. We don’t know what the exactly plans are but everybody is feeling better,” one long-time thoroughbred trainer told your correspondent Tuesday.
“All we’ve been told is that we’re going to be racing and the purses are going to be roughly the same as last year. We are definitely all happy to get back to racing.”
There are currently 390 thoroughbreds at Edmonton’s Century Mile and 206 harness horses at Calgary’s Century Downs that have been training for more than two months waiting for the word.
Those numbers are expected to swell to 500-550 and 275-300 respectively for a mid-June start to begin expected 40 race-day season for the thoroughbreds and 50-day meet for the harness horses with no fans with no on-track betting and strict protocols in place to begin with.
If they get the go, horse racing people in Alberta should be beyond excited because of the phenomenal effect the early return of racing has been witnessing while other sports remain in limbo.
Horse racing has been the first pro sport to be back in business other areas of North America and the results have been astounding.
Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg was the first track back in Canada last week and despite no fans in the stands and no on-track betting, the wagering handle was staggering.
Through the first three nights of racing last week, the betting handle set track records, going from $1,067,221 for openers to $1,623,616 and then $1,786,264 and came back with $1,429,225 Monday.
That’s $5,906,326 for the first four racing days!
Last year Assiniboia Downs average handle last year was a mere $12,467,854 for the entire year.
And Assiniboia Downs is currently holding only six races on each card.
By comparison the average handle for thoroughbred racing at Edmonton’s Century Mile last year was $172,422 and hit $838,429 for the Canadian Derby.
Assiniboia Downs, which has a lesser status than the Alberta track, was undeniably the benefactor of being first back in Canadian sports to take advantage of all the people that normally bet hockey, baseball and basketball finding some action by playing the ponies.
“The majority of this, without question, is happening because we’re the first major sport in Canada to get going again and the only game going,” said Assiniboia CEO Darren Dunn on the phone from his office at the 62-year-old track.
“We knew we’d have some first-mover advantage. The sports betting field was lacking in content with the absence of the major sports. It will start to wane when the other sports come back but it should be strong for a while yet.
“The upside in a world that is upside down right now is that the exposure of horse racing here in Manitoba and certainly internationally has given Assiniboia Downs a rare spotlight that we are taking advantage of,” said Dunn.
As will be the case with Alberta if the tracks indeed get a go this week, the chance to finally open in Winnipeg saved more than the season.
“We had a lot of owners at the tipping point here of whether to stay in or not and sell their horses. Ultimately they showed a lot of loyalty and are now being rewarded for it,” said Dunn who has been CEO of the track for a decade.
Meanwhile, Mohawk and Woodbine are on deck in Toronto this weekend and will be interesting to watch from an Alberta perspective.
“Right now without a lot of content — and who knows if hockey, basketball and major league baseball are actually going to get going — people are looking for live sports and wagering opportunities on those sports,” said Woodbine CEO Jim Lawton, also in a telephone interview.
“I think there really is an opportunity for horse racing in Canada. At Woodbine, we’re hoping to do have our racing telecast by TSN,” he said of the live action-starved network. Having horse racing on prime time on TSN would be an opportunity to show a whole new generation more about horse racing.
“We’re really the first professional sport, to get going in this country. Part of the appeal of Assiniboia Downs is that they were able to get going and take advantage of it. I think the Assinaboia experience has been a large part because of pent-up demand.
“We’re looking forward to our openings this week because of the pent-up demand for our product,” said the former chairman of the board of governors of the CFL, who expects harness numbers at
Mohawk to more than double Friday and big numbers to follow Saturday afternoon at Woodbine.
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