“There is something about the outside of a horse, that is good for the inside of a man.”
There is something nostalgic about walking the grounds of a stable, the earthy mixture of dirt and hay, manes and tails. It is the sound of hooves, the neighs and the nickers. A blow of warm air on your hand as you greet eachother followed by giggles as that long nose sniffs your cheek. It is instant admiration, an appreciation for this spectacular mass of power and strength with gentle eyes that seem to reach your soul.
We had the privilege of being invited to enjoy our very first night at the races by Julie, of Alberta Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association (ATOBA), a not-for-profit society with a deep rooted passion for horses and a mission to share the powerful experience of witnessing them thunder down the track.
“The Vision for Alberta Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association is to contribute to an environment for premium racing experiences for breeders, owners, fans, media and sponsors. Our Mission is to promote the magnificent sport of Thoroughbred racing.” -Julie, ATOBA-
From a shed-row tour and meeting the horses, to learning how to read a program, placing our first bets over dinner and drinks and even an excited trip to the winners circle, it was a night that left us with an entirely new appreciation for the sport, the athletes, the breeders and those beautiful creatures at the center of it all.
Horse racing celebrates a deep rooted history, its origins circling the globe. From chariot racing in the ancient Greek Olympics to a more modern Arabian racing regime in the 12th century between knights returning from the crusades, speed, endurance and the desire to win are a tale as old as time.
The thoroughbred breed we know today dates back to the 18th century, a mix of English mares and the foundation sires of Arabians, Turks and Barbs, native to the Middle East. It was during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1724) that horse racing became a professional sport with spectator wagers being placed. By 1890, there were 314 tracks operating across the United States. In 1880’s Edmonton, residents of Rossdale Flats gathered for informal matches until moving to an official home at Northlands in 1900, an era that ends after the Canadian Derby on August 25, 2018.
“Although the horses are leaving Northlands Park, racing is not over in Alberta. While sad to leave a place where we’ve been making memories for 118 years, a new racetrack is very exciting and will bring new opportunities for the sport.” -Julie-
The 2019 season will kick off with fresh beginnings at Century Mile, a brand new facility located near the Edmonton International Airport that will offer a One Mile Track, State of the Art Barns with 800 stalls, slot machines and superior dining options.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Julie shared her wealth of knowledge, answering each of our questions, and introduced us to to Curtis, HBPA Director of the Alberta Thoroughbred Race Club. The purpose of the club is to provide the experience of Thoroughbred racehorse ownership, allowing members to share in ownership for an annual fee of approx $300/year.
We enjoyed an up close experience with one the club’s horses, a handsome face going by the race name of “Roi Des Tigres”. Better known as Tiger, it would be his first official race, and a moment we would relish as the setting sun added a gorgeous splash of color to the final stretch of the evening.
“If you think horses don’t know how to count, put three carrots in your pocket and give him only two.”
We also had the privilege of meeting Scout, a gorgeous (an enormous) pony horse. Horses such as Scout serve an extremely important purpose, companionship to the thoroughbreds. These horses are responsible for being a “safety net”, and their myriad of duties mean that an even temperament is a must, as they remain unfazed by any noise and excitement around them. On race day they accompany the thoroughbred in what is called the post-parade, a short walk in front of the grandstand, followed by a brief pre-race warmup. Pony horses are an integral part of thoroughbred training, making them unsung heroes each and every day.
WHAT WE LEARNED
The most basic lesson is this: Horse Racing is about SO much more than a mile of dirt track, jockeys in silks and hooves pounding toward the finish line. To say racing is a learning curve is an understatement, but these are some of the highlights of our education:
- Admission to the races is FREE, making it affordable family fun. Pack a picnic and head out for an amazing day of connection and excitement.
- The thoroughbreds are incredibly intelligent, and have big, unique personalities. They know if the have won, and they can pout after a loss.
- The horses are extreme athletes, and are treated with an extensive love and care that reflects such a rigorous training and racing regime, including visits to high tech, pampering horse spas. Yes, it’s a thing.
- Racing is a completely transparent, heavily regulated sport.
- The lines of each horse can be traced back over 400 years. Every single aspect of their lives is tested and documented.
- A thoroughbred wears a microchip containing a detailed history which can be quickly scanned for verification.
- Each horse races in colored silks unique to the owner. Colors are registered, and no two owners may have the same color patterns.
- Jockeys will race multiple times in a single evening. They must weigh in and out for each race
- Much like other major sports, horse racing is tiered, ranging from Maiden or Claimed, to Allowance to Stakes.
- A “Derby” is a race by horses that are 3 years old. The official home of the ‘Canadian Derby’ has been Northlands since 1957, a day of celebration in fascinators, vibrant dresses and sport coats.
THE WINNERS CIRCLE
He comes with a beautiful tale of hope and love and second chances. ‘Der He Was Gone’ was slated for the 3rd race, though not noted in the morning line selection of winners. He was racing under brand new ownership, and expectations were long and high. As he rounded the final corner in the lead, Julie’s excitement was contagious, waving arms and cheers of “Go Newf!” filling the air. We quickly headed down to the prestigious Winners Circle, where we were graciously invited inside, standing among the fortunate who were hugging and clapping eachother on the shoulder, a brief celebration of such a major triumph. In that moment, I completely understood the pull of it all.
“We have almost forgotten how strange a thing it is that so huge and powerful and intelligent an animal as a horse should allow another, and far more feeble animal, to ride upon its back.”
For the final race, we went outside to enjoy an experience of the senses. In the warm summer breeze, we watched as the riders and horses warmed up in the paddock, ‘Tiger’ among them, preparing for his very first race. The sun was setting, casting a burst of oranges and reds across the track, creating an atmosphere of perfectly timed magic to end the evening. Standing along the rail, the last lineup of horses thundered by, hooves pounding in rhythm with the cheering of the crowd. ‘Tiger’ did not win his premier race. But the horse who made Miss Teen B smile, the one who blew warm air on Little B’s cheek eliciting giggles and amazed Mr. B with his sheer size and muscle, won our hearts. And that, for us, was what the whole night was all about.
A huge thank you to Julie of ATOBA, and to Curtis, for giving our family this incredible experience, for sharing your knowledge, the horses, the winners circle and your table with us. Thank you for opening our eyes to this incredible sport, and allowing us the opportunity to share this passion with others.
Cheers to new chapters,