City councillor 'baffled' by Prairieland Park's decision to cancel 2021 horse-racing season

·5 min read
The Marquis Downs racetrack can be seen in this photo distributed by Prairieland Park. Leadership with Prairieland Park said they were still trying to make the 2021 season work three days before it was officially cancelled, but say costs and logistics associated with international jockey recruitment are some of the main factors behind the cancellation.  (Supplied/Prairieland Park - image credit)
The Marquis Downs racetrack can be seen in this photo distributed by Prairieland Park. Leadership with Prairieland Park said they were still trying to make the 2021 season work three days before it was officially cancelled, but say costs and logistics associated with international jockey recruitment are some of the main factors behind the cancellation. (Supplied/Prairieland Park - image credit)

A Saskatoon city councillor says he's "baffled" by Prairieland Park's decision to cancel the 2021 horse-racing season at Marquis Downs, calling the organization's reasoning behind the decision a set of excuses.

Ward 1 Coun. Darren Hill, who has a background in the agriculture industry, says he was surprised by the recent news the 2021 racing season at Marquis Downs was a no-go.

He feels Prairieland Park leadership has an obligation to both the city and the province's agriculture sector, including those working in the province's horse-racing industry, noting the cancelled season will have widespread consequences beyond horse owners and trainers.

"There's so many other people that are going to be impacted by this," he said. "I'm baffled by this."

Prairieland Park, located on land designated for agricultural activity, cancelled horse-racing in 2020, and like others in the community, Hill worries those involved in the sport won't be able to survive another cancelled year.

"Their margins are so thin to begin with, let alone now, a second season with no revenue or no racing for them, I think we're going to see some of the racers pack up and move to a different province," he said.

Ward 1 Coun. Darren Hill says Prairieland Park has an obligation to the province's agriculatural community, which includes the horse-racing sector.
Ward 1 Coun. Darren Hill says Prairieland Park has an obligation to the province's agriculatural community, which includes the horse-racing sector.

CBC reached out to Kristy Rempel, marketing manager with Prairieland Park, on Sunday for a response to Hill's concerns, but she said Prairieland Park won't be making further comment beyond the statement issued on Feb. 25 indicating the season was cancelled.

Leadership says costs, lack of agreement with the Saskatchewan's Horsemen Benevolent and Protective Association (HPBA) and the logistics of bringing international jockeys into the city for racing under COVID-19 protocols are some of the biggest factors behind the cancellation, noting the organization has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The HPBA wanted to see a 24-day season go ahead, while Prairieland Park was pushing for 20 days, and the two groups failed to reach a compromise.

"With the shutdown of our whole operations here, Prairieland could be losing as much as $3 million this year. So that poses a big challenge for us too," said Prairieland Park CEO Mark Reiger in a previous interview with CBC.

Reiger said they've invested in the sport heavily.

"How many days are enough? What are we supposed to do? We try our best here to make it work, but there are limitations as to what we can do."

The HPBA, however, says it feels Prairieland Park is leaving income on the table by not globally broadcasting simulcasts of its races, bringing in more revenue and a wider audience, with leadership saying they are also "at a loss" as to why Prairieland Park won't join in its ongoing efforts to lobby the provincial government for funding.

'I can't believe it'

The reasoning isn't sitting well with Coun. Hill either.

Hill says people could "easily" physically distance themselves from one another inside the Marquis Downs facility and precautions like planned quarantined and COVID-19 tests for jockeys upon departure and arrival could have ensured the season could go ahead.

"There's so many ways around this, and taking the easy way out and putting at risk everybody that's involved in the horse-racking sector, I can't believe it," he said.

Moving forward, he said he'll ask city administration to look into whether or not Prairieland Park did everything it could to run the season.

Mayor monitoring situation

Saskatoon's top elected official, Mayor Charlie Clark, also expressed concern for those affected by the cancelled season in a statement when asked about Prairieland Park's decision, but said mediation may be beyond the city's scope.

"I understand how concerning it is to see the challenges that are facing this historic industry in our city and province, and the impact this has on many families," said Clark.

"I have been following the combination of the impacts of COVID on the ability to run a season and the financial challenges of the industry. I'm also aware that it would take interventions beyond the scale of the city's role to address these issues," he continued.

"The city does not own or operate Prairieland Park or operate horse racing. Prairieland Park is a third-party corporation governed by a board of directors elected by their membership. Prairieland Park already receives tax abatements and a very favourable land lease in place on the property."

Nicole Hein, an apprentice jockey in Saskatoon who got her start at Marquis Downs, has said publicly she feels the organization isn't doing enough to back the sport. She's organizing grassroots demonstrations aimed at raising awareness about what the cancelled season will mean for the sport and the city.

Nicole Hein, an apprentice jockey and an advocate for the Saskatchewan horse-racing industry, can be seen in this supplied photo during a morning gallop at Prairieland Park. She says concern from an elected official about the cancellation of the upoming season is welcome.
Nicole Hein, an apprentice jockey and an advocate for the Saskatchewan horse-racing industry, can be seen in this supplied photo during a morning gallop at Prairieland Park. She says concern from an elected official about the cancellation of the upoming season is welcome.

Asked what she thinks about Coun. Hill's plans to inquire about Prairieland's efforts around the cancelled season, she said it's a "good step forward.

"If the city can take a look at Prairieland's responsibilities on their ag-land, it would certainly help us move forward with us making sure that it's in the right hands, or that it's operated properly according to the zoning and their agricultural responsibilities."

Hein hopes this year's season can continue despite the cancellations, saying she feels it's important Prairieland hears and responds to the industry's concerns and what she says is growing support.

"They are an agricultural society, and for them to just write this off knowing the damage that it's doing with the support behind us, that is just, I would call it a slap in the face," she said. "It's just blatant disregard for the importance of the industry."