Fans flock to Alberta Downs

LACOMBE — A cold, snowy spring weekend could not quell the enthusiasm of riders and workers at Alberta Downs.

Harness driver Jeff Stone

Harness driver Jeff Stone

LACOMBE — A cold, snowy spring weekend could not quell the enthusiasm of riders and workers at Alberta Downs.

“We had track records yesterday. We’ll probably have more track records today,” said track owner Robert Allen on Sunday as he prepared for the 1 p.m. harness races.

“The horse that broke the track record last week was sent to Toronto to run so there’s some pretty good horses here.”

About 100 programs were snapped up Saturday despite wet weather that mucked up the site.

Allen said he has a meeting scheduled with Lacombe County to move forward on work to improve the site.

“The grandstand will go over top of all this so eventually it will all be closed in and this will be paved out here.

“Right now it’s just gravel. But people don’t seem to mind.”

The only other tracks in Alberta are located in Edmonton, Lethbridge and Grand Prairie.

Joe O’Brien, of Beaumont, said he had to load his horses back into their trailers when it rained Saturday. But the convenience of the track can’t be beat.

“When (Allen) gets this all done, gets his grandstand all finished up, gets a roof on the stable, maybe a couple more barns, there won’t be any other B track like it in all of North America,” O’Brien said.

“In another year or so he’ll have this it tip-top shape.”

He said the horse racing industry has been struggling in the last few years with popularity of VLTs, casinos, and other sports gaming.

“We didn’t see it coming. But this is for sure helping,” O’Brien said about the race track located along the east side of Hwy 2, just west of Lacombe.

Harness driver Jeff Stone, of Didsbury, said the track is centrally located for everyone.

Stone, a second-generation driver, remembers a time when grandstands were so full it was difficult to find a place to sit.

Now, it’s just the people who love horses and the die-hard racing fans who come to out.

The Lacombe track may be just what’s needed to bring people back, thanks to Allen’s efforts, he said.

“The guy’s done a remarkable job for our industry. He’s really determined. I think he’s a real plus for standardbreds and thoroughbreds.”

Stone can’t imagine any other job but racing.

“I love my horses and they love me,” he said while patting his horse Sergeirachpaninoff.

“You can be in a really bad mood and you come out to the barn and he looks at you with his eyes perked and his ears up and he’s happy to see you and he wants to be around you.

“He’ll automatically bring your mood up.”

Donna Wyse, of Airdrie, agreed the industry really needed Alberta Downs.

“I think it’s great, especially when it’s right off the highway,” said Wyse, another horse enthusiast, waiting with her horse Just A Jiff.

“We raised him. He’s my baby,” she said giving her horse a kiss on the cheek.

About 30 people, half of them from Central Alberta, work at Alberta Downs.

Kevin Tunney, a federal officer who drives up every week from Calgary to supervise betting, video and photo finish, and horse urine testing, said the track also benefits a lot more people like farriers, guys supplying the oats and hay, even the local gas stations where people fill up.

“It’s huge the money it throws into the economy,” Tunney said.

szielinski@bprda.wpengine.com