Sask. horse racing community ‘extremely disappointed’ after season cancelled again

Click to play video: 'Horse racing season cancelled again in Saskatchewan' Horse racing season cancelled again in Saskatchewan
WATCH: There will be no horse racing at Saskatoon's Marquis Downs for the second year in a row, leaving local horse jockeys disappointed – Feb 28, 2021

There will be no horse racing at Marquis Downs in 2021, marking the second consecutive year without horse racing in Saskatchewan.

In a release on Feb. 25, Prairieland Park said COVID-19 travelling restrictions for jockeys coming into Canada from the Caribbean was a concern as 76 per cent are from the Caribbean. It also says lack of fans and funding were the main factors in the decisions to cancel the racing season.

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Prairieland Park marketing manager Kristy Rempel says it’s no secret that horse racing has been on the negative side financially over the years.

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“Going forward with (horse racing) during such a downturn year is a bit difficult for us,” Rempel said.

“It is a part of our business that we have functionally been running for years and years. This isn’t a decision we made lightly. It does encompass a larger picture of what Prairieland has been dealing with during the pandemic.”

Rempel says reported losses annually are roughly half a million dollars at Marquis Downs.

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Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) Saskatchewan division president Eddie Esquirol said Prairieland offered an 18- and 20-day racing season during negotiations through the summer and fall of 2020. The normal race season is 24 race days.

HBPA president Eddie Esquirol with a horse. Courtesy: Eddie Esquirol
HBPA president Eddie Esquirol with a horse and its rider. Courtesy: Eddie Esquirol

Esquirol said that there would not enough racing days for owners to earn back their millions of dollars in yearly investment in their horses.

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“Many of my fellow horsemen/women are looking elsewhere to race for the season, which is unfortunate,” Esquirol said.

“My investment in it is 365 days a year for a horseman like me,” said Esquirol. “It’s a 365-day commitment. Horse people want to be contributing to the local economy and racing in our own backyards.”

Esquirol added that other locations such as Lethbridge and Winnipeg are going ahead with their racing seasons. In those cases, Esquirol said online betting through simulcasting is one possible alternative way to generate revenue when there are no fans in the stands.

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Rempel said Marquis Downs is not equipped to do any simulcasting and therefore the need for the fans is essential.

Esquirol said there were also talks for financial funding from the provincial government, as per all other racing jurisdictions in provinces across Canada.

The only female jockey currently racing at Marquis Downs, Nicole Hein, has been fighting to ensure horse racing stays alive in Saskatchewan. She said she could be racing in another province.

“I’m staying here for my city, my province, my industry, everybody that is part of it,” Hein said. “I feel I can make a difference.”

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Local horse jockey and horse racing advocate Nicole Hein. Courtesy: Nicole Hein
Local horse jockey and horse racing advocate Nicole Hein. Courtesy: Nicole Hein

She feels communication between Priarieland Park and horse people lacked and felt it was disappointing to not be included in any negotiations.

“The long-term effects of this decision will not be good,” she said.

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Esquirol said for the jockeys, trainers, and backstretch employees that don’t race this year, they will need to find other means of employment. Others will apply for social services or assistance from the government.

“All this while the racing facility stays empty,” he said.

Esquirol said they would have appreciated a phone call to at least discuss possible outcomes for the 100-year business in the province. He said it takes two sides to come to a negotiation.

“There has to be considerations to both parties,” Esquirol said. “We want transparency. The employer has certain expectations, as the employee, to make things work.”

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Hein and Esquirol both feel there are examples of other cities across the country that will have a racing season and could have been used as a blueprint.

“All of our neighbouring provinces (have racing),” Esquirol said. “Lethbridge, Alberta, which has a population of 80-90,000, is having a 33-day racing season.”

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