Behind the scenes: horse racing at Northlands Park

WATCH ABOVE: Thousands of people and animals are making Edmonton home for Thoroughbred season at Northlands Park. Quinn Phillips has some interesting facts.

EDMONTON – The thoroughbred season opens on Friday, May 1 at Northlands Park.

The track has come alive with thousands of grounds crew members, racing team members and livestock.

If you’re like many people, you go to the track to watch the races or make a wager. But there’s a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that are vital to the thoroughbred season.

Here are three things you probably didn’t know about the Northlands park and the sport.

A city within a city

There are 1,000 horses that call Northlands home from March until October. It’s called The Backstretch.

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“The Backstretch is like a little city all its own,” said Chris Roberts, general manager of Northlands Park. “Its own security force, its own veterinary clinic, its own dorm structure, its own cafeteria.

“Each horse that’s here has grooms and vets, farriers and blacksmiths. Everything a person would need to be an elite athlete, the horses have.”

A city within a city full of internationals, like Jorge who was born in Mexico and grew up in California, or another jockey named Quincy who is in Edmonton from Barbados.

The jockeys

Speaking of the riders, it’s well-known that the men and women are very small. But what people might not understand is it’s not about height, it’s weight. These athletes have to stay light and some jockeys can struggle with weight their whole career.

“A lot of the guys, they struggle with weight for a long, long time,” said Jorge Espitia, a jockey for 13 years. “Of course it comes with the consequences of trying to keep a low body weight.”

Most jockeys weigh-in around the 116 to 117-pound mark; all strive to stay under 120. If they can’t meet the weight, it’s no secret.

“There’s an announcement made and everybody on track needs to know that horse is carrying a little bit more weight than what’s in the program,” said Roberts.

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Adding to the stress, jockeys are like contractors and have to win the hearts of trainers in order to get on horses during the season.

The dirt

Most racetrack visitors probably don’t put a lot of thought in to the dirt on the track, but Roberts says it’s the single most important safety feature for the horses and riders.

Northlands has a grounds crew that is on call and could be seen at the track at any hour, any day.

The crew is there ensuring the footing on the track is even throughout so the horses have something to dig in to. They also ensure that the surface is the right mixture of sand, clay and other materials. Soil samples are sent out frequently for analysis.

“They [passersby] could see them at 3:00 in the morning, they could see them at midnight,” said Roberts. “They could see them whenever the track requires work.

“In a rainstorm there’s a procedure, in a heat spell there’s a procedure, in a drought there’s a procedure. These guys are constantly working to ensure this surface is as safe as can be.”


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