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It was supposed to be an opening day to be remembered for the ages in the annals of Alberta horse racing.
But it wasn’t forgettable either.
It was the first pro sport in the province to return from COVID-19 and it was marred by an incident in the starting gate that send legendary jockey Rico Walcott and Adrian Gonzales to the hospital.
Paramedics reported a broken leg for Gonzales while Walcott escaped with negative X-Rays and went home on crutches. He’s expected to be out seven to 10 days.
The incident resulted in a 45 minute delay to get a replacement ambulance to the track at Edmonton International Airport.
The previous off-season, Walcott suffered four seizures within an hour and was taken to hospital where a CT scan revealed a golf ball-sized tumour on the front left side of his brain. His career looked likely to be over.
Miraculously, he returned to the track last year and even managed to win 17 races.
Walcott, 29, in his years at Northlands Park, brought home 1,292 winners in 5,491 starts, finishing with a 58 per cent win-place-show record, purse earnings of $17,275,889 and five Canadian Derby wins.
When Walcott won the first race of the new season Sunday aboard Chaska for owner-trainer Dale Saunders and paid $7.00, winning by several lengths, it look like he was starting the season to be the same dominant jockey we’ve watched here for the past decade.
As it worked out, Rigo Sarmiento, who won the jockey title while Walcott spent most of the season recovering, ended up winning three races on the day.
Century Mile had a jockey shortage to start the season with only 15 through the 14-day quarantine situation and others en route from the Caribbean this week.
It was a day when the focus was supposed to be mostly on the betting handle.
Ten days earlier, when Premier Jason Kenney and chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw finally gave Century Mile the OK to join Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs and relaunch thoroughbred horse racing in Canada, there were dreams of opening with a million-dollar handle.
Norm Casitiglione, head of the Horsemen’s Benevolent Protective Association, projected a 10-race opening day program that he envisioned would fill the gates.
The horsemen didn’t deliver.
Century Mile scrapped two races because of a lack of entries. With six scratches on race day, 62 horses ended up running instead of Castiglione’s hoped 120. So it was an eight-race opening day that went off with six-horse fields for the first and sixth races. The one race that was supposed to fill the 12 horse gates was the eighth, and it ended up with three horses scratched.
It ended up at 7.7 horses per race, not a significant improvement on the 6.8 from last year.
When the day with no fans and no onsite betting was finished, the off-track bettors around the racing world still had wagered $571,644.
Considering the new track averaged a handle of $172,422 last year with a high of $838,429 for the Canadian Derby, it’s still a triumph. But compared to the ballistic numbers produced in Winnipeg, it looked like chump change.
With race dates No. 13, 14 and 15 Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Assiniboia Downs will double last year’s entire season handle total of $12,467,854.
“It was definitely lower than we had hoped for but 175 per cent higher than opening day last year when we had 4,000 people at the track,” said Century Mile racing director Paul Ryneveld.
The hope was to catch the wave that Assiniboia Downs has been riding with their month-earlier start.
“As it worked out, a few key factors played into the handle,” said Ryneveld.
The most obvious is, “There’s way more competition than there was three weeks ago,” he said of major tracks like Churchill Downs and Belmont Park that are up and running again.
“Santa Anita had a closing day card that encroached into our first four races and we had to move post times around to dodge them.
“All of our races were five and a half furlongs and handle improves with the longer the length of the races. Bettors generally look at a track and how it plays before getting too aggressive with wagers.
“This was something to build on. The first three races handled around $25,000 each. The fourth and fifth were at $40,000 each. The last three were $130,000, $160,000 and $130,000.”
The $160,000 was produced for the 11-horse seventh race. You don’t need to draw a picture. No horses. No distance. No handle.
“We are going to see how Friday at 7:15 p.m. instead of 5:15 p.m. goes and may look to go to that post time, since our last three races were so large. One day does not give a trend to follow but theoretically a 10-race card would have done $800,000 with the numbers we saw.
“Fuller fields in the earlier races also would have helped.”
On Twitter: @ByTerryJones
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