The starting gate appears to have closed for good at Alberta Downs horse racing track near Lacombe.
Bob Allen, owner of the Lacombe track, said Horse Racing Alberta has not approved any races for next year, threatening the track’s seventh season.
“They’ve given my horses, given my (race) days, given my off-track betting to the new track in Calgary. That’s what it looks like on the surface,” said Allen.
He is referring to Century Downs Racetrack and Casino, which is due to open in April near the CrossIron Mills mall north of Calgary. Scheduled to operate 100 days a year, the track is the first in Calgary since Stampede Park track closed in 2008.
Allen said he doesn’t understand why his facility, which opened in 2009, is being left out of the action for next year.
“They won’t give me a reason. That’s what I’m mad about. One of them said it’s in the best interests of horse racing. I thought well that’s the dumbest answer I ever heard.”
He has also been told that his off-street betting locations in Red Deer, Blackfalds, Innisfail and Rocky Mountain House must close by the end of the year.
Horse Racing Alberta CEO Shirley McClellan confirmed that races will not be scheduled for Alberta Downs, but said the venue was seen as a shorter-term option until Calgary was ready.
“It was always understood that it was a year-by-year arrangement,” said McClellan. “There was never any long-term commitment nor any request for Alberta Downs to do anything on a long-term basis.”
When Alberta Downs became available, some races were held there to add more dates and Horse Racing Alberta picked up the “considerable” operating costs, including providing veterinarians, judges, stewards and security.
“It is a business decision,” she said. “You cannot recover your costs at the track.”
Alberta Downs was not able to break even because it does not have an attached racino, which includes lucrative slot machines. Horse racing tracks in Grande Prairie, Lethbridge and Edmonton all have slots, as will Calgary.
Alberta Downs has been a dream of Allen’s for years and he has invested an estimated $8 million in the turf and dirt tracks. He had planned for up to 150 slots but ran into a government moratorium on approving new gambling machines in the province.
Allen is not giving up without a fight and is considering legal action. He is looking into whether he can hold races without Horse Racing Alberta.
There is a lot riding on his facility, which employs about 30 in peak season.
Horse Racing Alberta announced earlier this week that Century Casino and Century Downs developer Max Gibbs will operate the two off-track betting outlets in Red Deer and all others south of the city.
Horse Racing Alberta is a not-for-profit corporation that regulates racing in Alberta and reports to the provincial government.