Saskatchewan's horse racing community is in shock after Saskatoon's Prairieland Park announced it is permanently cancelling horse racing.
"For Prairieland to shut the future of horse racing in Saskatchewan down is numbing," said Eddie Esquirol, president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protection Association and the owner of 30 race horses.
"There's 500 people involved in the industry."
Esquirol said 40 to 50 per cent of people in the industry in Saskatchewan are Indigenous.
He said people are going to be forced to relocate to Manitoba or Alberta if they want to continue with horse racing.
"It's a real gut punch for the horse racing industry in Saskatchewan," said trainer Anita Gardipy.
Gardipy's family has been training horses for many generations.
"I don't have any malice toward Prairieland, but I would say I have great disappointments. You know, as the operator, I believe there are many things that they could have done over the years instead of watching, you know, a slide down this slope," Gardipy said. "They have not been an advocate for horse racing. In fact, I truly believe that they've been kind of waiting so they can close the door and say, that's it."
Prairieland CEO Mark Regier said the challenges of continuing with horse racing have become too much for the organization.
"There's a lot of logistical problems with securing the horse inventory. We need to bring jockeys in from the Caribbean to run it," Regier said. "And it's very, very expensive to run horse racing. The bulk of our funding for horses, it comes from gaming, and the gaming industry is very competitive right now with casinos, with online gaming and the like."
Regier said horse racing has been in decline for some time and Prairieland was the last exhibition association that was running thoroughbred racing.
In horse racing's place, Prairieland announced it is in negotiations with the Canadian Premier Soccer League (CPL) and Living Sky Sports and Entertainment to bring a pro soccer team to the city.
Regier said Prairieland will explore how to turn Marquis Downs into a soccer stadium, with the possibility of a team playing its first game in 2023.
That news is no consolation to the horse racing community, which has operated at Marquis Downs for the past 50 years.
Nicole Hein, an apprentice jockey in Saskatoon, said she is angry but not shocked by the news.
"[Prairieland] have not communicated with any of the horsemen. They've been silent. And they like to just kind of throw this sort of stuff out there for us to find out on our own," Hein said.
"They haven't talked to us at all. So it makes sense that they would just try and make us go away by cancelling the season permanently."
Esquirol said an investor approached about leasing Marquis Downs, but that Prairieland turned that offer down.
"Now I look back and I realize that Prairieland had already made their mind to eliminate horse racing in Saskatchewan and use the facility for a soccer stadium," he said.
Esquirol said his association will continue to look for ways to bring live thoroughbred racing back to the province.
He's looking to hear what the province has to say.
"Do they have an issue with the industry going elsewhere and closing business in Saskatoon?"
If Hein wants to continue with her horse racing career, she will now have to travel from track to track.
"I'll have to become a nomad of sorts, you know, pick up and go somewhere else," she said. "But that means that I don't have the privilege of getting my own place to stay. I don't have the privilege of, say, buying a house and starting a family in Saskatoon."
Hein said people are still talking with the province to see if there is a way to get funding to bring back live horse racing.
Gardipy said the horses she trains will now be headed to Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, but it won't be the same.
"If you have a horse that's running, you can't jump in the car and go watch your horse run. And we lose out on that day-to-day activity," Gardipy said. "You form a real bond with the animals. You feed them every day, you train them every day. You clean their stall every day. And, you know, just like other agricultural activities, it's a 365-days-a-year activity."
The Opposition NDP is calling on the province to pony up funding to save the industry.
"Modest provincial funding for the sport of horse racing would have protected this industry and allowed it to succeed into the future. If your government acts now, these jobs could still stand a chance and their families could remain in Saskatchewan," said a letter signed by NDP MLAs Matt Love and Aleana Young.