LACOMBE — They were off and running at Alberta Downs horse racing track Saturday.
The parking lot was packed with pickups and race lovers lined the rails as harness races finally got underway at the track that has been taking shape over the past two years next to Hwy 2 just west of Lacombe.
“It reminds you of the old days. It’s like a big carnival,” said Fort Saskatchewan’s James Bond, who confirmed with a chuckle that was his real name. “You can step up to the rail and watch the horses come in. You don’t have all the TVs like Northlands.
“I hope he keeps it old-fashioned. That’s what it should be about.”
The grandstand, stables and other buildings were still under construction last weekend. But temporary buildings in place to house a betting office, concession and other offices. Picnic tables and couches were full as the public took in Saturday’s 10 races. Another 10 took place Sunday.
Lacombe’s Brenda Manz and her family staked out a spot on the rail and were enthusiastic about the new track in their backyard.
“I’m loving it,” said Manz. “It’s good entertainment for the whole family.
“Even these guys are cheering on their own horses,” she said with a nod to her sons aged three and five.
The only down side was the boys’ choice to win one race, Houdini, had no tricks up in his sleeve this day and didn’t come out on top.
Driver Ron Graham said there was some work to do but he was pleased to see another venue added to the circuit.
“Everything’s all right. There’s a lot of kinks that have got to be ironed out. The track has got to be made better,” he said, explaining that it was soft in some spots and too hard in others.
“Overall, it’s not too bad for the first day. I’m sure by next weekend it will be that much better.”
Graham, who has been harness racing for 40 years, said the track and the 15 proposed racing days are needed. The next racing opportunity for the harness racers is not until June 15 in Grande Prairie.
Track owner Robert Allen was pleased with how the first weekend of races went. He did not have a complete head count but said 300 programs were all taken on Sunday. A similar number of people appeared to be there for Saturday’s races.
“Under the circumstances, I’m very happy, because it didn’t look good for us two days ago.”
Lacombe County is still waiting for all of the conditions of a development agreement to be met and has threatened to issue a stop work order. The county, which is supportive of the track, wants to ensure the province has signed off on several environmental issues related to drainage and a wetlands on the site.
Allen remains confident all the necessary approvals will be lined up and expects to be hosting racing again next weekend.
Once the frost is out of the ground he will be able to fine tune the track conditions, he added.
Max Gibb, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Turf Club, which operates the track and another in Lethbridge was also enthusiastic.
“This is historical, memorable. We made a big jump to try to be ready this early for this program this spring,” he said.
Gibb said the track reminded him of his days as a young jockey riding the country race circuit decades ago.
“It feels like that. It just feels like a good county, agricultural horse riding.”
While Saturday’s racing was a good start, the long-term success of the Central Alberta track depends on lining up provincial approval for up to 150 slot machines in a proposed racing entertainment centre on site. Without the slot machines, the track will be limited to small meets, he said.
The province is not approving any new gaming applications until a forthcoming review is completed later this year. Gibb is hopeful that their application, which was already in the third step of the application process, will be approved after that.
“Obviously that’s our goal, but we’re happy to be this far along.”
The economic spin-offs can be significant. Lethbridge’s track pumps $50 million into Southern Alberta when you count all of the tourism, agricultural sales and other services required to support the horse racing community.