Prairieland Park Abandons Horse Racing for Pro Soccer

The horse racing industry in many countries has struggled for years, and the coronavirus pandemic injected more pain into the racing economy. But one thing that most fans and members of the industry knew for certain was that the centuries-old sport would find a way to go on.

Prairieland Park in Saskatoon has other plans for Marquis Downs, though. Despite the racetrack having recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, the company owners decided it could not survive the ongoing pandemic. After cancelling its 2021 horse racing season, Prairieland Park announced its plan to repurpose the venue as a soccer stadium.

A Respected Industry

The sport of racing horses dates back to Ancient Greece and Rome. Many aspects of the races changed throughout the centuries, but modern-day horse racing is not drastically different from its first days on North American soil.

The first tracks date back to 1665 in New York and Virginia, and Canada’s first race happened in 1767 in Quebec, with a mare named Modesty won a race with a purse of $40. The industry grew significantly in the centuries that followed. Historians say that hundreds of horse racing tracks operated in North America by the late 1990s.

In 2017, the Canadian horse racing industry officially celebrated its 250th anniversary. A total of 23 tracks in eight provinces memorialized the event on a July 1st celebration, though the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and other Canadian racing organizations celebrated all year.

Many parts of the horse racing industry have struggled to maintain its profitability, often requiring government funding to help various aspects of it stay alive during hard economic times. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 put exceptional burdens on the industry. While some tracks in Australia, Asia, and the Middle East continued running horses, albeit with no live audiences, those in most of Europe and North America stopped altogether.

Most tracks, however, resumed racing later in 2020, and many of them planned for a full 2021 racing season. While there were grandstand limitations and new health protocols in place for most tracks, the return to racing signified the return to an industry with a strong will to live.

History of Marquis Downs

Saskatoon’s Prairieland Park is an events centre, which hosts exhibitions, productions, and music shows, and offers amusement rides. It also owns Marquis Downs.

The Marquis Downs racetrack opened in 1969 as a result of the popularity of horse racing at the annual Saskatoon EX. Builders constructed the course and facilities in less than three months. It planned offer thoroughbred racing and sometimes harness racing.

The five-furlong oval track sat in front of a 3,500-capacity grandstand. In recent years, the racing season spanned from late May to early September with most races on Fridays and Saturdays.

Marquis Downs was also home to several popular stakes races, such as the Saskatchewan Derby and Heritage Day races, the latter featuring purses of up to $100,000.

In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic began to spread through Canada and prompted Prairieland Park to reevaluate all live events. And as the weeks turned into months without a solution in sight for the virus, the company cancelled racing, too.

Officially, Prairieland Park announced on May 4 the cancellation of the first part of the 2020 racing season to July. By June 9, the second announcement cancelled the entire season. The pandemic presented numerous impediments to racing, most significantly the fact that most of the jockeys at the track traveled from Trinidad and Jamaica. Travel restrictions prevented them from coming, and general Canadian health restrictions forbade most public gatherings.

At that time, Race Manager Rick Fior noted, “This is the first time we are seeing anything like this. It is sad to think there won’t be horse races this year.”

Rough Start to 2021

On February 25, 2021, Prairieland Park made a dreaded announcement:

“After much consideration and discussion, Prairieland Park regretfully announces the cancellation of the 2021 thoroughbred racing season at Marquis Downs. This is the second year in a row that Prairieland has had to make this difficult decision.”

Prairieland reiterated that 76% of their jockeys must travel from the Caribbean to ride, and travel restrictions and limited flights prohibited them from making any racing commitments. In addition, there were quarantine requirements and other health concerns that Prairieland said forced its hand.

Further, however, the press release posted about the track’s financial troubles. Prairieland Park’s overall operations decreased 90% due to the pandemic. Net profit in 2020 declined by 82%, and they projected that 2021 losses will exceed $2M.

As almost a precursor of more bad news, the statement added, “To help maintain its strong balance sheet, Prairieland Park has been forced to make many difficult decisions over the last year.”

Horse Racing to Disappear from SK

Barely two weeks later, Prairieland Park announced ongoing discussions with the Canadian Premier Soccer League (CPL) and Living Sky Sports and Entertainment to bring the professional soccer league to Saskatoon.

The company said that the end of racing at Marquis Downs after more than 50 years was “difficult,” but the opportunity to transition to soccer would help lead Prairieland “into the future.”

In recognition of the hardships placed on those suffering financial hardships due to the end of horse racing in the area, Prairieland said it would offer one-time financial compensation to horse owners. The owners would receive $1,000 for each horse that ran three or more races at Marquis Downs in 2019.

Further, the company will continue negotiations with First Nations Groups with regard to opening an equine school and racing event.

Stunned Racing Community

Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protection Association President Eddie Esquirol told CBC News that the news was numbing, especially considering the 500 people involved in the horse racing industry there. And he asserted that 40% to 50% of them are Indigenous.

Some believed that Prairieland neglected the racing industry for years, seemingly waiting to shut down the track. And the 2021 announcement of the season’s cancellation was sudden, with no personal conversations about the matter prior to press releases.

Prairieland CEO Mark Regier all but admitted that racing had become expensive, funded mostly by gaming. And the competitive nature of that market in recent years, including more online gambling options, meant less funding for horse racing.

Members of the horse racing community will need to see about relocating to Manitoba or Alberta or resort to traveling permanently to make a living in the racing industry.

 

Jennifer Newell

Jennifer Newell

Jennifer Newell has been writing about poker and gambling since 2004. From her days in the WPT offices to covering summers of WSOP tournament action, she also followed gambling legislation to Washington D.C. and women-only poker to the Bahamas. Meanwhile, she lived in Los Angeles and Las Vegas for many years before moving back to her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Now, Jen travels less, writing about poker and online gambling from her home with her two dogs watching her every move. In her spare time, she follows politics, works on her never-finished novels, and learns Italian in the hopes of retiring to Italy someday.

If you want to know more, you can follow Jen on Twitter @WriterJen

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