In the end, Northlands Park went out with a bang.
Western darling Sky Promise had a lot to do with that, winning the 89th edition of the $200,000 Canadian Derby (Grade 3) with authority in the last thoroughbred race scheduled to be held at the venerable Edmonton track after 118 years worth of runners.
That victory was sandwiched between wins in the $75,000 Manitoba Derby at Assiniboia Downs on Aug. 6 and the $150,000 BC Derby (Grade 3) on Sept. 8 at Hastings Racecourse, making it something of a Western Canada triple for the son of Sky Mesa—Maddie’s Promise.
The fans sent the old Alberta track out in style, too. They started arriving early on Aug. 25 in their Canadian Derby finest — top hats and tails for the gents; gowns, furs and fascinators for the ladies — and the attendance swelled as the day went on to a total of 14,568, easily the biggest crowd Northlands Park has seen in years. They were active participants, too, pushing more than $1.2 million through the windows.
After a fall standardbred meet at Northlands Park, the track will be closed to horse racing — both breeds. Thankfully, racing is scheduled to resume next year at Century Mile, a new facility under construction near the Edmonton Airport.
Paul Ryneveld, the general manager of both Century Mile and Century Downs near Calgary, tipped his hat to Northlands Park on its final day of thoroughbred racing.
“It was an awesome event. From the time that you showed up, there was energy and built throughout the day,” he told the Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones.
Despite looking ahead to 2019, Aug. 25 was not a day about the future, it was all about celebrating the past.
“Saying goodbye is never easy. Especially to a longtime friend,” wrote Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famer Curtis Stock in a piece that appeared on the Horse Racing Alberta website (www.thehorses.com). “I worked at Northlands. But mostly I wrote about Northlands. Especially horse racing, a sport which I loved writing about – for some 45 years – more than anything else. The horses. The people. The smells. The victories. The defeats. I wrote about the good times and the bad.
“I was there when, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they used to bet $1 million every Saturday and that was when there was no simulcast racing, no off-track betting and no betting on computers or anything else. The million-dollar days were all money bet on track. And that was when a million dollars was really big.
“For many years Northlands, in little old Edmonton, used to be the per-capita betting capital in all of North America. In 1981, the average daily betting on thoroughbred racing reached $858,026; harness racing’s average that year was $559,635. Every radio station carried selections and results. The Edmonton Journal carried selections, full charts and stories six days a week. Some of the best thoroughbreds in Canada would come to Edmonton for the Derby.”
On the last day of thoroughbred racing, the Globe and Mail’s Marty Klinkenberg found the man that called the first Canadian Derby at Northlands 61 years ago.
“Bryan Hall picked at his plate and reminisced,” Klinkenberg wrote. “He is 84 and has been in the broadcasting business 65 years. During the 1970s, he called more than 10,000 races as the announcer at Northlands Racetrack. ‘This is like everything else in life,’ said Hall. ‘If you live long enough, you see a lot of change. Time marches on.’
“Across from him sat Gordon Wilson, the chairman of group that runs Northlands Park. His family has been involved with the non-profit organization for 101 years. He gets emotional when he talks, but he understands why this is happening. The racing surface itself needs to be longer, he said. The barns on the backstretch are old.
“‘It is best for horse racing to find a new venue,’ he said. ‘I am happy for the horsemen.’”
Trainer Red McKenzie, 90, told Stock for a story in the Edmonton Sun that the closure of Northlands Park was, “sad to see… Northlands has been like a second home to me. Jim Thompson and I came to the track with our dads when I was 10 years old. And I never really left.”
Owner Hal Veale of Sycamore Stables told Jones, “I’m going to miss a lot of things. I’m not going to miss a lot more things. But today is a day to remember all the things we’re going to miss.”
Sky Promise’s jockey, Rico Walcott, hails from Barbados but said he has long liked Northlands Park, where he has won the Canadian Derby five times.
“It’s going to be sad when this place comes down,” he told Klinkenberg.
As for Sky Promise’s part-owner Rim Rollingson, winning the last race at the Edmonton track was more thrilling than maudlin.
“To be able to win the last race at the Northlands is an honour and a privilege,” Rollingson told Klinkenberg, especially on a day in which the track relived some of its glory days. The crowd and the handle certainly were reminiscent of a different era.
Stock wrote that all-sources handle on Northlands races now averages $221,000 and only some $60,000 a day is being bet on track on Northlands races.
“The betting isn’t the only thing down. In the ’70s, there were upwards of 1,400 thoroughbred racehorses to draw from which allowed five- and six-day-a-week racing,” Stock wrote. “Now, the equine population is less than 600 and they race only three days a week.”
Purses are expected to be higher at Century Mile thanks to a more robust slot deal and newer facilities.
But for one final day — as patrons slowly filed out at dusk as daisy petals from Sky Promise’s winning garland littered a track surface still fresh with hoof prints — thoughts turned more to sadness at what was being lost than what was to be gained.