Return to Derby glory

TERRY JONES, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:23 AM ET

It may be a stretch to suggest it was "The Best Day Of Your Summer" as advertised. But it was the best day in maybe a quarter-century of summers at Northlands Park.

The 80th Canadian Derby was a day to behold and beyond. You could go so far as to say, and I do, that it was a great day in Edmonton sports history.

It was certainly the best Derby day here in at least a couple decades, and was a testimonial to a ridiculously small race management team of Jason Teague, Jonathan Huntington, Sandra Symbaluk and Kevin Behm, who had the guts to go against the flow, to think big, to believe in one of the worst economic recessions of our lifetime that they could return the race to its former glory.

It's been a while. A long while.

For the first time in years, the stands were full and the place packed with an estimated 10,000 fans to watch arguably the most talented field in at least a quarter-century.

The crowd bet $288,926 on the Canadian Derby race itself. And if that number means nothing to you, consider that there have only been two occasions all year where the handle topped that number -- for the entire race card!

BIG BUCKS BET

Add $137,495 from the lead-in race, the 39th running of the City of Edmonton Distaff, and that's $426,421 bet in a span of about 43 minutes.

In the end, when the 12 races were in the form charts and the last of 108 thoroughbreds (quite possibly a single-day track record) had completed their trips around the track, a stunning total of $1,084,315 had been bet in this economy.

This is how I remember it from the days of Chariot Chaser, Klondike Prince, Winning Red, Pampas Host, Laissez Passer, Western Reason, Canadian Bill and Driving Home.

The Canadian Derby used to be an event. Then, thanks to Northlands, it became just a horse race. Kinda like what happened with Klondike Days. Once, it was an event, too. Then it became just a fair, then a fair without any flair.

Events enrich communities. Horse races, not so much.

Yesterday, you have to say the Canadian Derby took a large leap back to becoming an event again.

You don't bring back horse racing in a day. But you can bring back horse racing for a day. And yesterday a handful of motivated people proved you can return a race like the Canadian Derby into having a special spot on the local sports calendar by making it an event again.

How did they do it?

It started with the racing management team fighting to keep the Canadian Derby prize money at $300,000 in a year when purses dropped dramatically elsewhere due to the economy. That -- the way it worked out -- made the 80th running of the race the richest west of Woodbine, richer than any race in Vancouver.

That involved the challenge of one member of the team, ex-Sun Media football writer Huntington, returning to the track to work and sell an extra $100,000 in advertising in the spring to keep it at $300,000. That $300,000 played a big part in bringing seven import horses to the race this year from California, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg. One of those horses, (Scorewithcater) defeated the Kentucky Derby winner twice this year. Then there was a Toronto stakes winner (Stylish Citizen), Vancouver's top horse (winner Tommy Danzigger) and Winnipeg's top horse (Theglow).

BRINGS 'EM BACK

Create that kind of a field and the racetrack regulars are going to come to bet on it. And, the Day 1 goal of rookie race secretary Teague of providing a 12-race program with over 100 horses going to the post, you've got a don't- miss and can't-miss day at the track.

Memo for future: keep it the richest race west of Woodbine, regardless. It's peanuts in terms of what you gain in perception.

An event isn't an event, however, if it doesn't have the mainstream media in play. For the first time in 15 years the race was on national television. TSN provided a full hour of coverage yesterday. Credit Horse Racing Alberta for making that happen. CHED provided two hours' coverage.

There was also the Canadian Derby Girls calendar and contest which attracted 38,000 website votes.

Sex sells.

Bringing the greatest female jockey in history, Julie Krone, back to the track for the Derby Dinner, an autograph session and a Derby day race named in her honour, added a touch of class.

A free family-fun zone, local sports team mascot race and $1,000-a-race prize-money draws helped bring people back to the track.

All you want is it to look and feel like a big event during all three phases: 1. Here it comes, 2. Here it is. 3. There it goes.

Now that "there it goes" is a first-rate success story, it'll be a lot easier to make it the event it used to be in the days when the race mattered.

TERRY.JONES@SUNMEDIA.CA


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