Nathan Sobey drives his horse Wrangler Hitech towards the finish during the third race at the Alberta Downs Racetrack Saturday afternoon. Wrangler Hitech came in first.

Keeping pace: Alberta Downs attracts some of the best horses, drivers and riders but the industry is struggling

Paper Trail skips out of the barn at Alberta Downs, tugging at the bit as her driver guides her toward the track for a pre-race warmup. She’s trying to trot, but she’ll shift into a pace when it’s time to crank up the speed, says trainer Michelle Danroth.

LACOMBE — Paper Trail skips out of the barn at Alberta Downs, tugging at the bit as her driver guides her toward the track for a pre-race warmup.

She’s trying to trot, but she’ll shift into a pace when it’s time to crank up the speed, says trainer Michelle Danroth. Originally from Chilliwack, B.C., Danroth is one of the dozens of people working full time at the Alberta Downs racetrack near Lacombe this summer, trying to make a living in an industry that needs a serious and longterm injection of cash.

As her horse heads goes out for the 3.2 kilometre jog that will warm her up for her race later on, Danroth talks about the promises, still to be fulfilled, that brought her to Alberta nine years ago. She’s been at Alberta Downs since it opened, five years ago, in response to the same promise. She’s still waiting.

Alberta Downs owner Bobby Allen explains: While horse racing across the continent is struggling as an industry, the problems in Alberta relate to a sharp drop in revenue that came with the introduction of video lottery gambling.

Pari-mutuel betting alone can no longer provide horse owners with the purses (winnings) they need to continued breeding and racing good horses, said Allen.

In a deal struck under former Premier Ralph Klein, shortfalls were to be made up by allowing race tracks to operate their own lottery terminals, with the revenue pooled and a portion of that money then used to build up the purses.

Nine years ago and within those parameters, there was a plan afoot to replace the aging track at Calgary with a brand new facility at Balzac, including a licence for 625 video lottery terminals.

That project became mired in permitting and money issues and, at about the same time, the province put a moratorium on VLTs. Therefore, while the 625 terminals that were supposed to support horse racing in Albert remained in limbo, other tracks were unable to beef up their own facilities and Alberta Downs was not granted the VLT licence that was supposed to form a portion of its revenue.

In that time, the purses have been getting smaller and owners are breeding fewer horses.

Allen and Danroth both said they are hanging on to the hope that Century Casino’s recent purchase of the Balzac site will get the project back on track, with the resulting revenue from its “racino” coming online to help rebuild a crumbling industry.

Century Downs is slated to open in the spring of 2015. Danroth said she’ll believe it when the starting gates spring open for the first race.

While revenue has been a source of pain within the industry, there has been no loss of quality for people who come to watch the races, said Allen.

Certainly, his visitor facilities are not as grand as he had planned. However, he said the track itself is world class, with a one-mile, all-weather dirt track for the harness racers wrapped around a seven-eighths mile turf track for thoroughbreds.

That makes Alberta Downs the longest track in Western Canada and the Northwestern United States, including off-track betting facilities so gamblers can bet on any other races being run in Canada and the US, said Allen.

It’s possible to go upstairs at Alberta Downs and place bets at Woodbine, said Allen. It’s equally possible to sit at any track in North America and place bets at Alberta Downs, with all bets are eligible for a major jackpot.

“You could bet $2 here and win $3 million,” said Allen.

The quality of horses, drivers and riders at Lacombe is as good as anywhere else, he said, pointing out two regular drivers at Alberta Downs who are among the eight invited to a national competition in Prince Edward Island later this week.

Coming to the races is the most fun you can have for two dollars, said race fan Grace Jasper of Bowden, who drove up for an afternoon at the track with her friend, Marilyn Knock of Innisfail.

A $2 bet can be a complete loss, or it can return a tidy profit. The winner of the first race on Saturday paid back $14 for each $2 bet. Neither woman would offer any tips on the horses they were watching.

But people don’t need to bring a fat wallet to watch the races at Alberta Downs, said Allen. There are snacks and beverages available, including beer and liquor. But there is no admission or parking fee and people are welcome to bring their own picnic baskets if they wish.

They can bring their dogs, too, he said.

bkossowan@bprda.wpengine.com

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