By Natasha Eklund
I am sure many of you are familiar with the Northlands Racetrack which has operated for 113 years. They have sadly announced their last season, ending on August 25, 2018, with the 89th and final Canadian Derby. It is incredible to think that this track has remained mostly unchanged for 95 years, until 1995 and once again in 2005 for some upgrades.
The creation of Northlands track dates back to the 1880s and was established by residents of Rossdale, located just south of downtown in the river valley. This community dates even further back to the early 1800s as a site for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Fort Edmonton. In the 1880s, the residents of Rossdale would gather and host informal races featuring their best saddle horses. From this, formal racing rules were established and, by 1900, the races were moved to an official racetrack known as Northlands Park.
Ontario-born Robert James Speers has had such a large impact behind Western Canada’s horse racing experiences as he had built several race tracks across Western Canada and founded the Prairie Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association in an attempt to promote breeding in Western Canada. Speers bred thoroughbreds of his own, rewarding him with six Canadian Breeder of the Year Awards. Additionally, his name is in multiple Halls of Fame, some of which include the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame, Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, and the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. This is an incredible amount of recognition for Speer’s efforts to influence the experience of horse racing in Western Canada.
Along with all the recognition for Speers’ work in promoting horse racing in Western Canada, he also had a hand in the creation of the Canadian Derby. This is one of the most popular and glamourous events where everyone comes together in celebration and dressed to the nines. In 1925, Speers had built Winnipeg’s Polo Park track where the Manitoba Stakes began in 1930. This was later renamed in 1936 to the Manitoba Derby, which was limited to only Manitoba-bred horses. Only five years later, this Derby was once again renamed in 1941 to the Canadian Derby which allowed all Canadian three-year-old thoroughbreds to race. A year after Speers’ death, Polo Park was closed in 1956 and the Canadian Derby relocated to Northlands Park where it has been hosted for nearly six decades. Horses come not only from Western Canada, but also from the east, such as Toronto and Montreal to compete.
Contributing to the horse racing community, the Horse Racing Alberta (HRA) is non-for-profit organization which was established in 1996 to manage self-regulation. The Northlands closure had been an agreement between the HRA, Northlands, and Century Casino. This agreement has allowed for Century Casino to build, operate, and run a new race track opening in Spring 2019, next to the Edmonton International Airport. Similar to Northlands, this new track will continue to offer a family-friendly experience, dining, slots and wagering; it will also offer a state-of-the-art barn accommodating 800 stalls, and will host concerts, festivals and themed events. Through the closure of Northlands and the opening of Century Mile Racetrack, the HRA has acknowledged the importance and history of community that the races have brought to Edmonton and ensured that this experience will continue to grow.
If you have not got the chance to attend the races at Northlands, I strongly encourage you to plan a night out with some friends in the coming season to witness the excitement these races can offer!