By: Jennifer Morrison
From boxing to the Olympics, with horses all the way through, it’s been a rich sporting life for Max Gibb, the man behind Century Downs, the new track taking shape near Calgary.
If you get the chance to talk to Max Gibb about his horses, racing or the upcoming opening of his “mecca”, Century Downs racetrack, you can’t help but get caught up in his excitement, his passion, his joie de vivre.
The energetic and personable Gibb has been one of the most influential people in Alberta horse racing in the last decade, working with fellow horsepeople and industry members to bring racing back to the city of Calgary.
More than once, the plan for a new racetrack near the town of Balzac, just north of Calgary, was up and running and then quashed again just as quickly.
“I can’t tell you how many days I woke up and wondered if we were going to get something done with this project,” said Gibb. “This has been a humungous challenge, but I have been lucky to have a lot of loyal supporters.”
Century Downs, a racino adjacent to the impressive CrossIron Mills outlet mall, will open at the end of March, 2015. Standardbred racing will begin on the five-furlong oval in April and a thoroughbred season will begin in April 2016.
Gibb was born in Lethbridge, AB, but grew up in the farming town of Raymond, a town obsessed with three sports: boxing, basketball and horse racing.
Horses were Gibb’s first love and at the age of nine he was already riding in races at bush tracks. He rode in rodeo and equestrian events, getting on horses whenever he could. As a teenager, boxing soon took over as Gibb’s focus and he was good at it. He won eight Golden Glove championships from 1957 through 1964, when he was captain of the Alberta boxing team at the Olympic Trials.
Gibb continued to build up his career in sports when he took a job as executive director of the Alberta Sports Council in 1970, a position he held for 17 years. In that role, he was a driving force behind developing the Alberta Summer Games and later the Alberta Winter Games. He oversaw some 26 athletic games tournaments and then was part of an organizational and recruiting team for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.
The horses were never far away, however, as he began a small breeding and racing stable. He enjoyed attracting friends and family into the business of horse ownership.
“When I was working on the Olympic committee I also was conning friends of mine to buy into a horse,” said Gibb, laughing. “There were lawyers and oilmen all coming into my syndicates.”
Those partnerships proved to be fun and modestly profitable with horses such as Bogey Five and Bogie Six earning over $100,000 while racing at tracks such as Stampede Park in Calgary.
In recent years, Gibb’s stars have been She’s Italian, a homebred earner of over $350,000 and Teagues Fight, also an earner of over $300,000. Teagues Fight is named for Gibb’s grandson Teague, who was diagnosed with cancer at six years old, but beat the disease.
He also races Standardbreds and Paint horses at the top levels, proudly mentioning Royal Woman, a multiple champion Paint horse who continues to produce runners for Gibb.
In 1996, Gibb purchased the ranch he currently owns — “the most beautiful ranch anywhere” — and was contemplating semi-retirement to spend time with his horses. That is until he was approached by Alberta premier Ralph Klein who asked Gibb to help resurrect the financially troubled Lethbridge Exhibition, which had held an annual horse racing meet at Whoop-Up Downs for almost 100 years.
“I kept saying, ‘no,’” said Gibb. “But when Ralph Klein essentially told me I was going to run the place, I mean, what do you say to the premier? He said he’d give me slot machines, so I got friends and partners to gather some money to put it into it. We built a new facility and called it Bullys Turf and Entertainment Centre and we run the racing under Rocky Mountain Turf Club.”
With the “best little horse house in the west” operating a steady racing and simulcast business, Gibb turned his attention to a much bigger project — a new track for Calgary.
Calgary’s new track
Stampede Park closed in 2008 and, while racing has continued at Edmonton’s Northlands Park, Gibb was one of many industry members determined to develop a new track in the southern part of the province.
As chief executive officer of the United Horsemen of Alberta Inc. (UHA), Gibb worked with plans developed by the late businessman Dwight McLellan to build a track near Balzac, in the town of Rocky View, located about an hour north of Calgary. It has been an 11-year journey that has had a litany of hurdles and stops and starts.
At first, the plan was simply to build a racetrack alongside Highway 2, one of the busiest thruways in the country. More than $130 million in infrastructure was poured into the plan which included joining up with the CrossIron Mills outlet mall.
“We may have overreached on our dream a bit,” said Gibb. “But then when we couldn’t get water, we couldn’t get the loan for the money.”
Yes, they could not get water. There was not enough water to go around in Alberta in 2006 and that put a halt to building plans in Rocky View. In 2008, the recession hit hard and the group lost financing.
Gibb never gave up, nor did his fellow horsepeople and business partners. In 2010, the UHA partnered with Century Casino to complete the track project. Combined with CrossIron and a soon-to-be-completed Asian mall, the biggest of its kind in North America, the Rocky View area will be a hub of spending activity.
“We have been going from floating ice to floating ice and now we have landed on a beautiful island,” said Gibb. “Next to the Fort McCoy oilfields, this area is going to be the biggest economic driver in Alberta.”
As the opening of Century Downs nears, Gibb has not had a lot of time to play with his horses at his Millarville ranch, called Falcon Cliff. The property has stalls for 30 year horses and rolling paddocks with the Rocky Mountains in the background. Adjacent to the ranch is Square Butte, a gated, condo community where entertainment’s biggest stars such as Clint Eastwood, Anthony Hopkins and others stay when they are filming.
Up early for horses
Gibb, who has about six to 10 foals born at his farm each spring, does have high hopes for a couple of runners in 2015.
“I am excited about one of my three-year-old fillies — She’s It Again, a daughter of Cape Canaveral. I also have a newly turned four-year-old, Pay to Go Home, who was stakes placed as a two-year-old. And I am excited about having six two-year-olds because each one is going to be a stakes winner and make me lots of money!”
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Gibb’s hometown, Raymond, is close to the small towns of Taber and Cardston, the hometowns of famous jockeys Johnny Longden and George Woolf.
“The towns are obsessed with horse racing,” said Gibb, who will get up at dawn to watch his mares foal or watch a trainee put in a workout (“otherwise don’t call me before 9 a.m.”).
“He’s a fighter,” said Rose Rossi, who along with Dot Stein have been Gibb’s right-hand assistants for almost 20 years. “It took someone like Max to make the racetrack a go finally; he never gives up.”
Gibb will be able to breathe a bit easier once Century Downs opens, but it is not likely he will slow down too much.
“Horses and racing keep my adrenaline going,” said Gibb. “I have always been busy, but I don’t think I have been busier than I am now. I have had an amazing life.”