Watered down

JONATHAN HUNTINGTON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:19 AM ET

The Alberta horse-racing industry has suffered another blow.

The proposed $205-million racing facility just north of Calgary will not open until at least next fall.

In fact, the Sun has learned the track might not open until April 2009.

SCHEDULE UNCLEAR

It's yet another delay for the much-anticipated facility and leaves the racing schedule for next year in this province very unclear.

But the main financial backers of the Balzac-area project still believe the track will become a reality.

"There is no doubt in my mind," said Max Gibb, the CEO of the United Horsemen of Alberta.

The mega-facility was originally supposed to open this year. The timeline was then pushed back to opening in April 2008. This time the delay is due to a lack of water.

"We have established sources of sufficient water. There is some difficulty in obtaining the appropriate provincial and municipal permits and that has sort of delayed the construction schedule," said Dr. David Reid, the chairman of Horse Racing Alberta, the governing body of the sport.

Gibb wouldn't comment on why the water permits haven't arrived because he doesn't want to ruffle any feathers.

"Did we want it to be this way? No," continued Dr. Reid.

"Did we dream of it being this way? No.

"Horse Racing Alberta does understand the incredible challenges and difficulties this is going to cause the horsemen and the breeders and we are very sensitive to those issues.

"I am very confident the horsemen will handle this transition because the light at the end of the tunnel is a very big one. It is a very rosy future for our industry in this province."

The Sun has learned the plans for the UHA facility still include two racing ovals - one-mile thoroughbred surface and seven-furlong harness track - along with 1,200 stalls and lavish grandstand.

Besides a large area for 500 slot machines, the grandstand will include restaurants and six private luxury boxes.

SERIOUS CONCERNS

But to horsemen currently racing in Alberta, there is serious concern about next year.

With Stampede Park apparently scheduled to close its doors to racing at the end of this month, the powerbrokers in the sport are trying to put together some sort of schedule for next year.

Even if the UHA plant opens in fall 2008, it won't be able to accommodate thoroughbreds because their specific paddock won't be finished.

Only harness horses will be able to race at the UHA site.

So, for the thoroughbred section of the sport, there are two options for next year: race their entire season at Edmonton's Northlands Park or hope for Stampede Park management to reopen their track next spring.

"We will have discussions with (Calgary's) Stampede Park," said Gibb on the idea of trying to convince Stampede Park to open their doors.

Racing leaders are also hoping Stampede Park will consider holding winter training for the thoroughbreds in Calgary which could allow the harness horses to continue to race some form of an abbreviated meet in Edmonton early next spring.

BACKSTRETCH BANTER: Officials with UHA claim they have already spent $40 million on the project, which is located adjacent to Highway II. If it comes off the ground like they expect, $100 million of the $205-million price tag will be in long-term debt.

FINISH LINES: For the first time, UHA's board of directors has been publicly revealed. Edmonton thoroughbred owners Cam Allard and Gordon Wilson are involved. So is B.C. millionaire harness owner Robert Murphy and millionaire thoroughbred owner Lynn Chouinard.


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