Troubled waters?

JONATHAN HUNTINGTON

, Last Updated: 7:29 AM ET

CALGARY -- The Alberta horse racing industry is about to enter the most critical 18-month stretch in its existence.

When the final thoroughbred race crosses the finish line at Calgary's Stampede Park today, the track will apparently close its doors on live racing.

At the moment, it appears Stampede Park will not host live racing next year or beyond.

"We are moving forward with our expansion plans, so we have got construction schedules we have got to meet in the backside," said Stampede Park senior racing executive Keith Marrington.

"We are building tunnels back there (in the barn area). If we extended racing another year it would interfere with those construction schedules and projects we need completed by 2011."

With the proposed $260-million racing facility in Balzac - a few minutes north of the Calgary airport - not scheduled to open until 2010, that leaves only one track (Edmonton's Northlands Park) on the current landscape that can host top-level thoroughbred racing in Alberta next year.

The same can be said of winter training for the thoroughbreds.

"We have got three issues to resolve. We have to resolve where we can race. Then we have to find places to train. Thirdly, we need to find what we can do financially in terms of purses," said Dr. David Reid, the CEO of Horse Racing Alberta, the governing body of the sport.

"It's not an issue one person can solve. We have the right people from the industry to look at all potential venues and opportunities."

That group of leaders will meet on July 9 with the hope there is a start to a solution to the problems.

In the meantime there are four key questions facing this sport.

1. What will the schedule look like next year?

If Northlands is the only place for 10 weeks of winter thoroughbred training and a thoroughbred meet next year, what happens to the harness industry?

If the thoroughbred industry keeps it's regular schedule of dates in this province, it could be in Edmonton from February until next September. That would be a big blow to harness horsemen.

But Dr. Reid suggests it's too soon to speculate about potential 2009 schedules.

"We've got two breeds to look after and we are going to look after two breeds (thoroughbred and harness)," said Dr. Reid.

2. How much money will be available for purses in 2009?

Horse racing's share of the slot machine revenue at Stampede Park ends in March 2009. Horsemen need purses to stay close to the current level next year to survive - or good horses and people will leave the province. There's no word on where purses will be next season.

"Our goal would be to work towards keeping the purses at a respectable level," said Reid.

3. Is Stampede Park really staying out of the live racing game?

The Calgary track was supposed to have its final season in 2007. That didn't happen.

Will something twist their arm to reopen - again?

4. How much damage will be done to the Calgary racing fan base?

If there is no live racing in this city next year, how many people will still care about the sport?

If the racing industry is able to negotiate around all the major obstacles and the Balzac track opens in 18 months, the sport will survive.If not, all bets are off.


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