Hanging up the saddle: Northlands Park holds final horse races

Northlands Park is hanging up the saddle after 118 years of horse racing.

Track opened in 1900, home of Canadian Derby since 1957

Fred Gillis, who raced for 25 years at Northlands Park, watches one of the final races at the historic track on Saturday. (Gabrielle Brown/CBC)

Northlands Park is hanging up the saddle after 118 years of horse racing. 

The track predates the province of Alberta and has been the home of horse racing in Edmonton since 1900. On Saturday, the horses and drivers took their final laps during the harness races. 

Fred Gillis has been a regular face at the track since 1983, when he first started racing in Edmonton. He holds one of the track records dating back to 1995, a highlight of a 25-year career based out of Northlands Park. 

"It's a loss and I realize you have to turn the page and start a new chapter, but a lot of people are going to miss Northlands," said Gillis, who is also the executive director of the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association. 

The track became the home of the Canadian Derby in 1957, cementing its stature among the best tracks in North America and soliciting massive crowds for decades. 

Patrons wagered $125,888 on the last day of horse racing at Northlands Park, the most raised during a harness race event. (Gabrielle Brown/CBC)

"It was the place to be in the 80s," Gillis said. "It was absolutely packed, fans cheering and screaming. It was the only game in town, so it was pretty exciting." 

The future of the track remains unclear as the city mulls over potential options for the entire Exhibition Lands, including the Coliseum and the Edmonton Expo Centre. 

The reins of Edmonton horse racing will be handed off to the Century Casinos and the Century Mile track, which is expected to open beside the airport in April 2019. Northlands was originally set to hold its last horse races in 2016, but ended up renewing an agreement with Horse Racing Alberta into 2018 to time up with the opening of the new track. 

The grandstand crowds have thinned in recent decades, in part due to the advent of online betting. But some people at the track seemed more concerned with nostalgia than wagers.

Chris Georgy brought his daughter Taylor on Saturday to mark the final chapter in Northland Parks 118-year-old history. (Gabrielle Brown/CBC)

Chris Georgy brought his 5-year-old daughter, Taylor, to the edge of the track to watch her favourite animal gallop past. He remembers spending Saturday afternoons the same way with his own dad.

"It's something to do on a Saturday and I have fond memories as a kid cheering for a horse I had no money on," he said. 

"I hope people go out and support the new track … so we can actually keep quality horses coming here." 

A crowd of faithful patrons and newcomers alike wagered $125,888 on Saturday. It was the highest mark of the year for harness races, according to Scott Sinclair, director of racing and gaming at Northlands Park. 

"We sent it off in style," he said.