In November 2010, I was in Australia to see the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup, one of the world’s major horse races. The noise that erupts when 110,000 people start cheering is spine tingling. The fashions are both sharp and outlandish.
Contrast that to Western Canada; it’s a place with a strong horse culture, but a day at the races is quite different.
There was a time when horse racing was a bigger deal in Edmonton. Articles from the late ’50s reveal the formality of the racetrack. An Edmonton Journal picture from the 1960 Derby Day shows Lieutenant Governor J. Percy Page and Mrs. Maude Page arriving in an open horse drawn carriage. There was a sense of occasion.
Fast forward to today. Horse racing exists in an era of ferocious competition for the entertainment dollar and leisure time. Online betting of all forms has become a huge competitor to the live experience.
In the last decade, the horse racing industry in Alberta has encountered obstacles. Purses have fallen and, in 2014, tax incentives for owners disappeared. Stampede Park in Calgary closed in 2008. Prior to that time, the annual racing season was split between Calgary and Northlands. While the new Century Downs track, next to Cross Iron Mills outside of Calgary, has been delayed, Northlands has hosted most horse racing dates for the past six years.
John Stavropoulos, a tax lawyer and a director of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Alberta, has expressed frustration over the health of the industry on the financial side. He considers the lack of racing venues over the last six years to be a real problem. Even so, he remains optimistic. “Horse people in Alberta are a resilient group, and won’t go down without a fight.”
Although fields and cards across western Canada were small early in the 2014 season, betting on thoroughbred racing was up almost 12 per cent over last year in the first four months of 2014. Chris Roberts, general manager at Northlands Park, senses a change in Edmonton. He says crowds have been trending up over the last three years, especially for Northlands’ Friday night “Park After Dark.” The aim is to create a party. The tarmac beside the track transforms into a huge summer patio. But Roberts admits the big challenge is to lure young first-timers. “When we get the 20-, 30-, 40-year-olds to the track, they love it.”
The two big race days for Northlands are the Canadian Derby in August and the Fall Classic in September. The Derby is one of the top five horse races run in Canada. It is a race with a long history – but still full of potential. The purse for the Derby is around $200,000. But, to put that in context, the richest day of racing worldwide is the Dubai World Cup – where more than US$29 million is on offer on a nine-race card, including $10 million for the 16-horse mile-and-a-quarter feature race.
The Derby has been happening in the city since 1957, after Edmonton inherited the hosting role from Winnipeg, where the Polo Park track closed to make way for a mall. And for the last few years, the Derby has been shown live on network television with the quality of the coverage steadily improving. On the ground there are more options for those attending – including a Kentucky Derby-style infield patio party. On the other hand, the prize money is still down. Shirley McClellan, former deputy premier and current CEO of the Board of Horse Racing Alberta, is upbeat about the future. “We’ve always had exciting Derby races,” she says. “And the race will grow in stature when we offer a purse that attracts the best of the best.”
A lot of Albertans like to gamble. The University of Alberta’s Alberta Gambling Research Institute reported that 82 per cent of adults have gambled in the last year in Alberta. In recent surveys, Alberta topped the country in the total level of gambling on a per capita basis. A survey in the same year by Abacus found a higher percentage of millennials gamble online than other generations. But Western Canadian Lottery Corporation is rethinking its marketing because those young gamblers aren’t embracing traditional store-bought lotteries. So, while there is a gambling market, the issue is finding where those dollars are being wagered, which is where horse betting might come into play.
But revitalizing the industry is a big challenge. Appealing to a younger demographic is an important facet of the strategy. A 2013 report in British Columbia pointed to the Del Mar racetrack near San Diego as a template for success. Del Mar has squarely aimed its marketing at a younger crowd, especially targeting high rollers and affluent young women. It sets out to make racing a social event to see and to be seen.
Could the Canadian Derby, like other marquee races around the world, be a stronger magnet for networking, fashion and general showing off? This year, for $95 per person, the “VIP Infield Experience” promises “fun and glamour in a tented Hamptons’ style atmosphere.” Takers can participate in the Derby Day Hat Competition. Young local fashion enthusiast and artist Hayley Wright sees no reason why fashion should not become a bigger aspect of the Derby.
“It is always fun to have an excuse to dress up,” says Wright.
So what does she recommend for Derby day? “A classic floral frock in light, summery colours with a cardigan or light jacket would be a great choice for a young woman attending Derby Day. Of course, you can’t forget a vintage hat to make a statement.” It’s a chance to party like it’s 1957.
The Hamptons atmosphere is a far cry from Northlands campaign hatched just five years ago. In 2009 and 2010, it issued the “Derby Girls” calendar featuring young women in bikinis and lingerie.
When the 85th running of the Canadian Derby jumps on August 16, some people will be at the lake. But with Northlands adding options for spectators, perhaps this year will see a little bit more glamour and spice added.