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A 'Grand' Return To The Track

Published: August 28, 2021 11:15 am ET

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After more than a year where no live events were being held in a group setting, Packwood Grand returned to Alberta's Century Downs in a big way earlier this month and with it came record business for the Calgary-area racetrack.

Cory Edwards, Packwood Grand executive producer, conveyed both a sense of relief and an attitude of pride while discussing the August 7 event at Century Downs — the sixth edition in Calgary. While cognizant of racing's position in the current entertainment landscape, he and his team are strong supporters of the exciting on-track experience that horse racing provides.

"[Horse racing] is something that we think is very special and a really cool thing that we're trying to continue on," Edwards told Trot Insider.  "So, 2019 was a good year for us. We had grown, we've been growing year after year. For 2019 we thought that we really produced a great event, and we had amazing feedback from everyone who attended. And we were really looking forward to 2020 thinking that it was going to be, you know, a record year. Obviously with everything that happened, we weren't able to produce anything."

The ability to produce anything in 2021 to the scale of past Packwood Grand events wasn't even a guarantee for Edwards and his team until about three months ago. On May 26, the province of Alberta announced plans to reopen. With it, Packwood Grand launched ticket sales for the two August Packwood dates — August 7 in Calgary and August 28 in Edmonton — that same day, not knowing if the province was planning to announce guidelines in line with permitting social gatherings.

"It was a risk, you know, it could have gone one of two ways, but when the announcement happened that things were going to open up we sold more tickets in the first week than we did all of 2019. It just took off," admitted Edwards. "Alberta summers are so short anyway that, you know, there's lots of weddings, there's always events going on so we compete with a lot of different things. I think this year really worked out, kind of to our benefit, because of that. 

"We had a lot of first-time customers come, and we got a lot of emails from people saying, 'I've wanted to come for years and years but I always have something going on.' And so I think 2021 really kind of put us on the map for a lot of these customers or patrons who wanted to come and want to experience it, and then a lot of people who never did get to experience it and got to come out. I truly think that everything kind of aligned this year and that from here it's just going to continue to grow further and further."

Edwards agreed with the popular opinion that events conducted safely and under the right protocols would experience a strong and positive response once presented. The timing for the Packwood Grand 2021 launch was essentially perfect.

"Absolutely. Yeah, I think everyone was hungry to get out and do something. We sold out our VIP suites and our VIP tickets within the first week. It was the fastest we've seen people purchase tickets since 2014 when we launched the event. So it does really show that people were absolutely hungry to get out and do something, maybe not even just go to a patio and have a beer but actually go out for an event."

The popularity of Packwood Grand in Calgary wasn't as surprising or rewarding as the response for the event being held today in Edmonton. As Edwards pointed out, the first edition of Packwood Edmonton was in 2019 at Century Mile. Not being able to build on that success in 2020 was of some concern.

"First-year events, trying to go to a new city, is always tricky. We've been doing events for a lot of years and for us Year One is just trying to get out there and get some awareness, and then Year Two is always our breakout year," admitted Edwards.  "So, for Edmonton, after 2019, we put all the work in and put all the money in, we're looking forward to 2020 and're quite upset with what happened. But it seems like this year, 2021, that we didn't skip a beat and the appetite for Edmonton has been phenomenal as well and ticket sales have been great. We're looking forward to Packwood Edmonton."

It should be noted that both Packwood Calgary and Packwood Edmonton are conducted in full consultation with Alberta Health Service, partners, vendors, stakeholders and that the event operations team remains vigilant with regards to the current health situation, and operates within full compliance of government health authorities.

"In Calgary we do two different sections, so we utilize the infield as well. We've filled up the whole infield. And then we use the main area of the tarmac for our general admission," said Edwards. "The government, Alberta Health, we stayed in very close contact with them, we made sure that we followed all the rules. But, to be honest, it was a little bit easier than we expected. The government was very accommodating. We just follow all the typical rules. We serve food, lunch is included in the ticket. Working with our catering partners, they're great, they follow all the protocols they need to.
"We were prepared for the worst," Edwards stated regarding the Calgary event. "We were prepared to originally have to have seated tables for every single person, six to a table...we had all that ready and prepared if we had to do it. And lucky enough for ourselves and for our guests, that's something we didn't have to do."

Edwards spoke glowingly of the teams at Century Downs and Century Mile as well as the on-track product his patrons come out to enjoy.

"Our first year we did it 2014 was out at a track in Millarville — that's where I grew up, and their board was run by a bunch of older individuals that are kind of are set in their ways, and a couple of young guys came in and said they're gonna throw this Kentucky Derby...and they were a little hesitant, and Year One we pretty much outgrew Millarville. 

"Paul Ryneveld, the general manager for Century, they were out at the events at Millarville. Paul actually approached us and said, 'Hey, I like what you guys are doing. I went out and I saw it. You know we're building this new track out in Balzac and we'd love for you guys to be part of it.' So, to be honest, from the start, they've been really cooperative. They take care of whatever we need, they have their guys on the ground. There are many, many meetings that lead up to the event, and they really work with us to get what we need and we work with them to get what they need. We have a great working relationship with them, so I have absolutely no complaints and we're nothing but thankful for the help that they give us and the opportunity that they give us to produce these events at their locations."

The event production benefits the track as well, with Century Downs sporting its highest on-track handle ever during the Packwood Calgary event on August 7.

"I think Paul told us, to be honest, year over year after year I think we continually beat the largest on-track betting total that happens in a single day and I think we continually beat it year after year. We want benefits for them as well. So we always ask 'how did we do, how were your numbers?' and year after year it seems that they're very satisfied."

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