Iconic fantasy horse races return to St. Louis Hotel years later
Bar regular George Stephenson started world-renowned event in 1980s
Eager gamblers and imaginary thoroughbreds are packing the St. Louis Hotel for the first time in years to mark the return of the iconic "horse races."
Participants showed up to bet in the restored hotel's basement today — a scene that will play out every Friday afternoon for the rest of the summer.
"It's paying homage to this legendary, world-renowned event that used to take place every Friday at the St. Louis Hotel, prior to it closing down," said Jessa Morrison, senior communications manager at the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC).
CMLC is partnering with Best of Calgary and the East End Petroleum Club, among others, to revive the fake races started by George Stephenson in the 1980s.
George Stephenson's legacy
Stephenson, who died in 2014, was a regular at the rowdy bar — long before its closure and restoration.
In 1985, alongside a group of friends, he started impersonating Joe Carbury, a long-time Calgary Stampede rodeo announcer. His friends then jokingly encouraged him to call a horse race in Carbury's animated voice.
They all started betting on the fake horse races as Stephenson narrated animated stories on the spot — and ended up calling the province's liquor and gaming commission because they didn't want the hotel to get shut down for illegal gambling.
The races became a weekly event, later formalized when neighbouring tables at the St. Louis jumped on board and they started handing out sheets that listed horse names.
The races came to an end in the early 2000s.
This time around, Calgary personality Dave Kelly and guest announcers will take the mic.
There's something so Calgary about it because I don't think you would find this anywhere else in the world.- Jessa Morrison, senior communications manager at CMLC
Morrison said the event's revival is a way to pay homage to the vitality and excitement around the neighbourhood back when Stephenson was the founding announcer.
"There's something so Calgary about it because I don't think you would find this anywhere else in the world," she said.
People thump tables as if they're actually watching real horses, Morrison said, adding it's "hilarious" to watch. And as they listen, they sip beer and munch on chicken and fries.
Attendees can donate their winnings to the Calgary Youth Justice Society.
"We particularly like this event because it does align with some of the things that we do, which is this idea of horse racing and building up a thoroughbred and helping them across the finish line," said Tina Clem, director of the society's leadership program, In the Lead.
St. Louis Hotel's future
The event isn't permanent but rather a pop-up activation taking place while CMLC looks into a permanent use for the historic building.
Morrison said CMLC doesn't have a specific timeline for the St. Louis Hotel.
However, she said one vision is for the space to house a hospitality venue once again, where Calgarians can buy food and drinks.
With files from Helen Pike