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Horse track closure spells end of an era

Bob Kingston said goodbye to two thoroughbreds Tuesday morning. The horses were sold by J & G Murphy Holdings, a small breeding operation located on the outskirts of St.
Critics say that horse racing is a dying industry
Critics say that horse racing is a dying industry

Bob Kingston said goodbye to two thoroughbreds Tuesday morning.

The horses were sold by J & G Murphy Holdings, a small breeding operation located on the outskirts of St. Albert, in an effort to downsize following an announcement last Wednesday that 2016 would be last year of horseracing at Northlands.

“It was an opportunity to get a good home at an early time,” said Kingston, who has trained horses at J & G Murphy Holdings for the past 14 years. “With the announcement, I think a lot of people will be scaling down and it’s probably going to be hard to sell.”

Both horses raced at Northlands in lower claiming races and were sold to a horse jumper. The owner wanted to sell before the market was flooded to ensure that they would continue to work, explained Kingston.

In unveiling the Oilers-less vision for Rexall Place, president and CEO Tim Reid told a crowd of journalists that the 52 acres of land at Northlands Racetrack and Casino would serve the community better as a large-scale urban festival and events site.

With Northlands planning to break ground in October – to be ready for Canada’s 150th birthday celebration on July 1, 2017 – that makes this season the last for horse racing.

The announcement came as a shock to the horse racing community. Northlands is synonymous with premier horse racing in Alberta and Western Canada and has been home to the sport for over 117 years.

“A lot of our membership is really upset. People have a lot of money invested in some cases,” said Dr. Steve Smith, president of the Alberta Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the organization that represents thoroughbred owners, trainers and employees.

“There’s a lot of investment in each of those horses before they go to the races. It’s probably fair to say that people are panicking to know what the future holds for us,” he added.

A look at Horse Racing Alberta’s 2015-2017 Business Plan reveals that the racing authority had been looking to this past season as a bright spot on the horizon.

For the last seven years, since the closure of Stampede Park in Calgary in 2008, the racing authority has been juggling two different breeds on the same track, making it difficult for either to have a full, meaningful season.

The opening of Century Downs in Balzac last year meant a full 90-day season of standard bred racing and a forecasted additional $100 million in wager revenue over those three years.

“2015 is an exciting year for the racing industry with the opening of Century Downs Racetrack and Casino planned for April 1, 2015,” wrote CEO Shirley McClellan in the report’s opening letter to then-agricultural and rural development minister Verlyn Olson.

With the news that Northlands is closing, McClellan’s logistical nightmare could be reborn.

She has heard interest in opening another racetrack, but so far there are no confirmed leads on keeping horse racing in the Edmonton area.

The loss of the racing industry would pay a big blow to local farmers, who produce oats, hay, straw and other feed.

“At Northlands during the racing season there are 1,000 or more horses there, and obviously those horses consume a lot of high quality feed,” said Smith.

A 2015 economic impact report prepared by a third party for Horse Racing Alberta shows that total direct and indirect expenditures contributed $290 million to the province’s overall economy. Sixty-two per cent of that, over $179 million, goes to rural Alberta.

At J & G Holdings, they grow their own hay and oats, if the industry moves away Kingston is certain farming operations will stop.

The small breeding operation, which races around 15 to 20 horses a year, all at the Northlands track, puts on average $500,000 or more into the economy each year, between buying tractors, racing and employment, said Kingston.

He expects the company will have to cut breeding and racing operations in half, a move that will certainly translate to layoffs.

“It would be sad for it all to stop,” said Kingston.

He added that although he’s sure thoroughbred racing will continue, he’s not sure their operation could withstand the move to another venue.

“We’re getting older. We like Northlands. We’re just outside St. Albert, it’s close for us. If we have to start going to Calgary again or Grande Prairie again,” he said, stopping short.