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Harness Racing Returns To Saskatchewan

Published: March 15, 2021 1:35 pm ET

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Although the announcement of the Canadian Premier Soccer League's planned expansion into Saskatchewan brought with it the end of Thoroughbred racing at Saskatoon's Marquis Downs, the news of harness racing's return to the province for the first time in eight years is cause for welcome optimism among Standardbred horsepeople throughout the prairie region.

While logistical difficulties — particularly involving international travel for Thoroughbred racing participants — led to the 2021 Marquis Thoroughbred meet being cancelled in February, and the March 12 announcement of the CPSL's entry into the Saskatoon market cemented a permanent end to Thoroughbred racing on the Prairieland Park grounds, the opportunity for harness racing to take over the floodlit five-eighths-mile track for a short meet before the transition takes place is one that Trevor Williams, president of the Manitoba Standardbred Racing Industry Inc. (MSRI), finds a welcome step in the right direction for the region.

"It was my dad (Mike Williams, President of the Manitoba Harness Horsemen Inc.) who got a phone call first," Williams told Trot Insider. "He got a call from Rick Fior from Marquis Downs asking if Standardbreds would be interested in some dates this year. Obviously, it was a feel-good call. I called him back and discussed with him, and Dad talked to him, and we figured out that we could probably get enough horses between us and potentially some guys from Alberta to make a 10-day meet work if the funding was available."

Marquis Downs last hosted harness racing in 2010, but had been unable to host both breeds simultaneously in the decade since due to limited provincial funding, as Williams explained:

"We'd been reaching out to them on an annual or semiannual basis, just to see if there was an appetite to bring us back in any sort of capacity. They had their Thoroughbred dates, but, I think funding-wise, they couldn't support the Standardbreds as well. We've always kept a pretty open line of communication between us and them, and it was a killer to Saskatchewan horsemen when they left — seven or eight years, since they've been gone. We've always kept it in the back of our heads that maybe there would be something that could work between Manitoba and Saskatchewan — and even into Alberta — a schedule that could work through those provinces. That's kind of always been an opportunity we wanted to try and see if it was possible, but there was never really a strong possibility based on the feedback we were getting."

With that financial hurdle no longer one Williams has to clear due to the previously abandoned Thoroughbred season, a 10-day stand in Saskatoon will be able to provide prairie horsemen five extra weeks of racing — slated to occur in September and October, after the summer circuit in Manitoba concludes. And with the transition of the Prairieland Park plant — where Marquis is situated — only able to begin as soon as 2022, there's ample time for horse racing to enjoy one last hurrah over the historic oval.

"They want to go Saturday and Sunday racing for five consecutive weeks, so a total of 10 days," Williams explained, adding that roughly $150,000 in purses will be available. "We're not expecting 10 races a day or anything like that, but if we can get seven races a day at a $2,500 average purse or so, it's similar to what we're racing for in Manitoba right now."

Harness racing at the Yorkton Exhibition

This September will mark the first Standardbred races to be contested in Saskatchewan since the Yorkton track last conducted racing in 2013. Another facility, West Meadows Raceway in Regina, had closed a few years prior. With no current harness racing presence in the province, horses and horsepeople will have to ship in from neighbouring provinces, but Williams hopes that Marquis Downs' central location between Edmonton and Winnipeg — a direct shot on the Yellowhead Trans-Canada Highway from both major markets — can serve to attract horses from both the Alberta and Manitoba circuits.

"From Edmonton, we're talking about a five-hour drive, maybe a little less," he said. "From most places in rural Manitoba, you're looking at about seven hours — some maybe six or five, as well. So, kind of in the middle of both. They would offer stabling there for up to as many horses as we need, so that'll help. Our guys, most of them have full-time jobs in Manitoba, so to pick up and leave is going to be difficult. We definitely have a few big stables that can commit to just up and leaving, and they'll be good, but some won't be able to go, so that's where we'll need the help from Alberta and potentially some older Saskatchewan horsemen that come home for the five weeks just because."

Even though the Marquis meet is likely just a one-off proposition and a number of details remain to be fleshed out — including race office staff and whether wagers will be accepted — it's a sure step in the right direction for harness racing in the prairies, one that can possibly pave the way for a regional, multi-province circuit in years to come.

"I know us, personally, Manitoba horsemen have always loved racing out there, and we used to ship to Marquis Downs all the time and support West Meadows and Yorkton," said Williams. "Whatever it is, a racetrack is a racetrack, and we're going to support it, for sure. We're definitely excited for [Marquis] to think of us. Even if it is just one year of racing, it essentially doubles our dates for the Manitoba horsemen who are able to go. It extends the meet a bit, and that's heading into a year where the Red River Ex is going to be coming into play for Manitoba, too, giving people that sort of excitement and a reason to buy more horses and breed more horses. This just adds to that and gives a little more income to everyone. It's huge."

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