Travis Cullen drives his horse Mach Away towards the finish during the fourth race at the Alberta Downs Racetrack Saturday afternoon.

Travis Cullen drives his horse Mach Away towards the finish during the fourth race at the Alberta Downs Racetrack Saturday afternoon.

Racing politics delays Alberta Downs opening

A problem lining up jockeys has delayed the opening of Lacombe’s Alberta Downs.

A problem lining up jockeys has delayed the opening of Lacombe’s Alberta Downs.

A season of thoroughbred racing was to begin this Sunday, but manager of racing Christina Sturgeon was informed on Thursday morning that eight of 13 jockeys could not make it.

Sturgeon said “negative pressure” on the eight international jockeys within the thoroughbred racing community led to them giving Sunday’s event a pass. Five Canadian jockeys were willing to come.

“It’s very political. Racing has got to where it’s very political,” she said. “It has nothing to do with trying to make racing better in the province.”

Jockeys are being recruited in the Caribbean to fill out the racing card for the June 12 races and rest of the season, which goes until the end of October.

Mat Monaco, executive director of the Alberta branch of the Horsemans Benovolent and Protective Association, said there was no negative pressure from his organization, which represents the interests of horse racing owners, trainers and employees.

It is up to jockeys to choose where they race, said Monaco, who spoke on Wednesday with Alberta Downs owner Bob Allen to explain the association’s position.

“(Jockeys) have to weigh the pros and cons. They have to make a decision whether to go.”

From the association’s standpoint, there are cons to racing at Alberta Downs. It costs up to $750 per jockey in paperwork and other employment issues to bring freelance foreign jockeys to race at Northlands. The expectation is they will race the entire season.

Should a jockey be injured at Alberta Downs, which is responsible for its own insurance and purses, a jockey could be lost for the season. That means losing both a jockey and the investment to bring him to Alberta in the case of foreign riders.

But jockeys are independent business people and are free to take that risk if they choose, Monaco said.

It would be a different scenario if Lacombe was an A-class track like Northlands or Calgary’s Century Downs and using the same jockeys, trainers and owners, he said. Alberta Downs, as well as tracks in Lethbridge and Grande Prairie are B-class tracks.

The latest development is an unwelcome last-minute hitch for Alberta Downs, which boasts the only turf track in Western Canada to go along with a one-mile dirt track.

After Horse Racing Alberta failed to include the track in its 2015 schedule, the track was pleased to announce 22 days of Sunday racing this year.