Northlands is home to horse racing until 2018 Victory and heartbreak mark last day of thoroughbred season

Horse racing will continue at Northlands until 2018. In November, Northlands and Horse Racing Alberta (HRA) reached an agreement to continue racing at the park until July 2018, when Century Mile, the new track outside the city, is ready.

Mat Monaco, executive director of The Horsemens Benevolent and Protective Association of Alberta (HBPA), said it’s a positive commitment.

“We have more clarity now on Northlands with the announcement on Nov. 3 that we will have a 2017 season there,” Monaco said.

But on Oct. 22, when the future of Northlands Park racetrack was still undecided, the last day of the 2016 thoroughbred racing season took on a special significance for fans.

As the horses prepared for the first of 11 races, realtor Maureen Nicolson expressed strong hopes for the future. “If the track does move to a site near the Edmonton International Airport, let’s make it a spectacular place with vastly improved facilities,” Nicolson said.

“The racing industry deserves new barns and modern amenities.”

In many ways, Oct. 22 was a typical day, with good crowds, a full racing card, and the occasional light skiff of snow.

Jockeys raced after $50,000 purses, one for each of the following races: the 15th running of the Freedom of the City, the 43rd running of the Duchess of York, the 20th running of the Canadian Juvenile, and the eighth running of the Harvest Gold Plate.

Jockey Renaldo Cumberbatch rode two-time winner Can’t Use Nellie to victory in the Duchess of York. Can’t Use Nellie was shipped in from Winnipeg to win the handicap stakes for fillies and mares.

Tragedy struck during the Canadian Juvenile. Norm’s Big Bucks, a loveable two-year-old ridden by jockey Rico W. Walcott, was making a strong move to the lead. Suddenly, it was obvious Norm’s Big Bucks was hurt. The way was open for Trooper John and jockey Keishan Balgobin to capture a stunning eight-and-a-half-length first-place win.

Norm’s Big Bucks’ right front knee was fractured. Riversedge Racing Stables Ltd. bought him in 2015 at the Alberta Yearling Sale for $95,000, a record price for an Alberta-bred horse, and the thoroughbred had already proven his worth in three high-stakes races.

“Norm’s Big Bucks was making another of his winning moves and he took a bad step. I didn’t even go to the winner’s circle with my other horse, Trooper John. I had to focus on what was best for Norm’s Big Bucks,” said distraught trainer Tim Rycroft. “Everybody loved that colt.” Norm’s Big Bucks was euthanized that night to prevent him from suffering further.

Racing is a sport noteworthy for victories as well as the rare tragedy. That day was marked by both.

Although the thoroughbred season is finished for 2016, harness racing runs Nov. 18 to Dec. 26. Friday and Saturday night races begin at 6:30 p.m. There is no racing on Dec. 24, but fans can take in a special 1 p.m. program on Dec. 26, the final day of racing in 2016.

Header image: Can’t Use Nellie, ridden by Renaldo Cumberbatch, wins the 43rd running of the Duchess of York.| Constance Brissenden

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