Northlands horse racing track closure lamented by southern Alberta trainer

The Calgary Eyeopener interviewed a horse trainer from Olds for his reaction on the closure of Edmonton's 116-year-old horse track at the end of the 2016 racing season.

But loss of storied 116-year-old track still 'a big blow' for Alberta's horse racing industry

Alberta's horse racing industry will be forced to seek new venues now that Edmonton's Northlands track is shutting down. (Associated Press)

After more than a century, Northlands horse racing track in Edmonton has announced it will close the track after the 2016 season.

The cash-strapped non-profit organization that runs the track has announced ambitious redevelopment plans that aims to keep the site relevant as Edmonton's new ice district draws visitors downtown.

Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray interviewed Olds-based second generation horse trainer Craig Smith for his reaction to the news.

"It's definitely a big blow for the industry," said Smith.

"There  are over 7,000 people employed by horse racing in the province. We're big contributors to the lottery fund. It's taking money away from the province if one of those plants closes down."

Smith rejected the suggestion that the Northlands closure means horse racing is dying in Alberta.

"It's a different industry than it has been in the past," he said. "But ... it's still  a strong industry [with] new people becoming involved. There's a program at Olds College that generates new employees for us every year."

Smith said attendance at races has gone up and down over the years.

Horse racing community caught by surprise

Smith said he didn't think anyone in the horse racing community expected the Northlands announcement, and that losing Northlands will force the industry to look for other venues.

His horse owner clients are concerned, asking him whether they should breed their mares: a three- to four-year project that only makes sense if the future of the industry looks secure.

Smith said the Northlands news will "definitely" mean fewer horses will be bred in Alberta.

"I don't think anybody really has a Plan B right now. You know there's been some groups come forward. Clients are obviously concerned because they've got a big investment, and they're wanting to know what the future looks like, and right now we just need to sit down and come up with a plan of action."

For Smith, the Northlands closure marks the end of an era, but he also worries it will divide Albertans.

"In my mind, it furthers the disconnect between rural and urban Alberta. You could go right out your back door, see horse racing, see horses, see horse people and it's definitely concerning and definitely an issue."

Will the new Balzac track pick up the slack?

Smith noted that Century casino and racetrack will to be very important to Alberta horse racers, but at the moment it does not have a thoroughbred facility.

"They want thoroughbred racing there, and we're definitely wanting to race there," he said.

Thoroughbred racing requires stabling and a different kind of track surface than standard bred horses, so Smith said the province really needs more tracks for the industry to thrive.

So for now, Calgarians who want to see thoroughbred racing will have to visit the local casinos that host off track betting.


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