Maybe This Should Be the Final Canadian Derby
It's billed as "The Final Canadian Derby" and it'll be held at Northlands Park in Edmonton this Saturday. This is an event, because of its historical significance, that should receive massive mainstream media coverage. But it won't and that's sad.
There are sports and events in sports that just aren't deemed to be as important as they once were. Boxing used to draw huge interest when I was a kid. It doesn't anymore. The Indy 500 used to be much bigger than it is today. It happens.
They'll have a big horse race at Northlands this Saturday and there will be lots women show up wearing big hats, but it will be nothing like the event I remember as a kid.
Early Years At the Track
I grew up in northeast Edmonton, about a 15-minute walk from Northlands Park.
My first memory of going to the horse races was in about 1966. My two aunts took me and I can still remember sitting in the stands, turned on by the excitement as they made a few small bets for me. It was simple, pick a horse you liked, bet some money and then cheer like hell. I was 10 at the time.
A few years later I was making bets by myself even though I was only 14 and learned life lessons at the track every summer.
In those days there was nothing better than Canadian Derby Day. You need to understand that in the late 60’s and early 70’s there was no Fringe Festival in Edmonton, no Heritage Festival, no Folk Fest, no Street Performers, no marathons and no triathalons. Cable TV was still few years away and of course we didn’t have the internet or Netflix. All we had was a few Edmonton Eskimos games, Klondike Days and the Canadian Derby. That was our summer in the Alberta capital.
Derby Day was always great. I remember the excitement in the air, especially as the horses got loaded into the gate for the big race. Thousands of people packed the grandstand. You would have needed a shoehorn to jam a few more people in. As the horses came down the stretch towards the finish, the crowd made a bigger noise than I ever heard and the old grandstand was literally shaking from people jumping up and down.
It was big stuff and I felt special being a part of it.
Fast Forward to 2018
The 89th Canadian Derby will be held at Northlands Park this Saturday.
As we’ve seen in recent years, once again there’s been little hype about the event and very little mainstream media coverage. Edmonton Northlands announced a long time ago it was getting out of horse racing. Century Mile, a new racing and gambling complex is being built near the Edmonton International Airport, and it’s scheduled to open next spring. Horse racing will move from the northside of Edmonton to south of the city next to the airport.
Northlands is calling this the “Final Canadian Derby.” Hold on a minute – the final Canadian Derby? I assumed such a prestigious race would move to Century Mile next year, or another track that wants to carry on the tradition. Why is this the final Canadian Derby? Does Northlands own the rights and won’t give up the name?
Unfortunately, these questions haven’t been answered in the media as far as I know, mainly because it doesn’t seem to care much about horse racing anymore. The Edmonton Journal abandoned it several years ago and the Edmonton Sun followed a few years later. Other coverage, to a large extent, bailed years earlier.
That’s especially sad, because for years some of the best writing on horse racing was done in the Journal by Curtis Stock, writing so good that Curtis is now in the Canadian Horse Racing Hal of Fame in Toronto. Curtis still writes for the Horse Racing Alberta website, but it’s just not the same. I'm told he will be doing a few articles for Postmedia on the Derby over the next few days, but I don't expect much more media coverage than that, despite the significance of the event.
For years post positions for the big race were drawn on Wednesday, producing a ton of media coverage from both sports and news reporters. Not anymore. You have to go on a search mission to find mainstream media coverage of the event this week.
In reality, what has happened with the Canadian Derby mirrors what has happened with Northlands.
In the 1980’s Northlands seemed to have it all – the Coliseum with the Edmonton Oilers winning Stanley Cups, the then new Agricom for trade shows, Klondike Days with record attendance figures and a thriving horse racing operation with a Canadian Derby that produced million dollar handles as early as 1980.
Fans will also bet well over a million dollars this Saturday, but keep in mind in 1980 you could buy a nice house in Edmonton for $70,000, making a million wagered in a single day quite the accomplishment.
Today Edmonton City Council is trying to figure out what to do with the Coliseum, likely only delaying the final decision to demolish it. The Agricom was expanded years ago and renamed the Expo Centre, but the City runs that after taking over the huge debt Northlands had. Horse racing has almost gone, so what does Northlands have left? Unless I’m missing something there’s only Klondike Days for two weeks next July and a casino. I would like to know what’s going to happen to the casino, but that’s another story that’s gone untold.
The Northlands website says the last day of racing for the year is also this Saturday. That’s interesting because horse racing traditionally ran several weeks after Derby Day. This year, with little fanfare, the final day of racing at Northlands will also be this Saturday. I wonder if anyone will notice?
I was hoping that Northlands would do it up big this year, since it is the “Final Canadian Derby”. Perhaps there would have been lots of fanfare, free giveaways, celebrities, and excitement, but it doesn’t look like it. It looks like the same overpriced lineup ($175 for a seat in the clubhouse) as in the past. I can’t really blame Northlands though. There’s no business left to grow. The fact that the doors will close after the last race on Saturday shows how badly Northlands wants horse racing to end.
Don’t get me wrong, there will be a big crowd, some excitement and nostalgia this Saturday. There will be lots of photos on social media of women wearing big hats and men in slick suits, but it will be nothing like the days two generations ago when that grandstand used on shake on one Saturday afternoon every August.