Saturday, February 17, 2018 saw the final day of harness races take place at Northlands Park after 118 years of racing. The day had a good turn out, better than had been seen for majority of the meet, but still nothing close to rivalling the crowds that used to frequent the grounds on race day.
The conversations heard through out the day were a mixed bag. There was a collection of shared memories and reminiscing of days past sprinkled amidst an eagerness to move on and move forward. There’s still hope within the community that harness racing could return to the popularity of the past; standing room only, place to be, can I have your autograph, barns full to the brim, leave work early to get a good seat kind of popularity. This excitement however was clouded by an apprehension as to what exactly moving forward was going to look like. As of the end of the meet, the new track has yet to be completed and hasn’t really taken shape. Given the major delays faced by the track down in Balzac, you can’t blame those within the industry who refused to believe they’ll be racing there this fall until the first race lines up behind the gate. Frankly, if faced with the delays experienced by the track in Balzac, it could be complete disaster for the horse racing industry in Alberta. Thankfully, Century Casinos, who took over the project in Balzac and created Century Downs, remains adamant that this new track will be completed in time for a fall opening in September 2018. But again, no one is really confident as to what that will actually look like.
Assuming the new track is completed on time, there are a still a number of things that need to be addressed and changed by the industry in order to draw in the crowds and interest essential to the success of both the new track and the industry. The massive cuts to HRA’s marketing budget paired with Northland’s genuine lack of willingness to do anything other than the bare minimum required of them has left a void where horseracing marketing should exist. Century Downs conversely has done a great job so far creating content and promoting the races. Between their social media presence (both during the on and off season) combined with the effort they’ve put into posting video interviews, hosting Racing 101 seminars, and creating accessible events for fans of all ages has been nothing but refreshing. It really shouldn’t be, as their actions should be the norm within the industry among both racetracks and governing bodies, but nonetheless it is more than welcome and appreciated. Hopefully the understanding of both branding and marketing will be continued with the team at Century Mile and horse racing can be brought back to the mainstream culture in the province.
At the end of the day, fancy new racetrack or not, there’s yet to be the major shift in mentality so desperately needed in Alberta. They need to engage their audience, and find a way for their target demographic to identify with some aspect of horse racing. Once they can identify with it, they can value it. Once they value it, they’ll be willing to invest their time and money in it. Everything that ‘we know will work because it worked in the past’ simply isn’t good enough anymore. It’s going to take risk, and it’s going to take something new, and something that hasn’t been done before to bring back those crowds and the sheer love and joy for the sport.
This next year will be very telling for the future of the sport in Alberta with lots of opportunities to expand the fan base. In the mean time, spread the word. Whether on social media or in person. Bring new people to the races; it needs those fresh faces that have no idea horse racing even exists in Alberta anymore. Bring your friends, bring your coworkers, bring your grandma. There’s something for everyone to enjoy and hopefully will be for years to come.
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