Horse racing beats the odds at Marquis Downs


Ten years back, you couldn't have found a sane better who would have been willing to even plunk down a $2 show bet on a horse named 'Survival' at Marquis Downs. The sport wasn't dying, it was dead.


Ten years back, you couldn't have found a sane better who would have been willing to even plunk down a $2 show bet on a horse named 'Survival' at Marquis Downs. The sport wasn't dying, it was dead.

Any horse making it to the finish line couldn't even be guaranteed it wasn't glue pot material for the next day. Oh, the people at Marquis Downs put up a stiff upper lip and told people all was well and things were thriving, but not even honest politicians could sell that to the electorate.

There were more skeptics about the future than horses most weekends and it was costing Prairieland a bundle to keep it going. Rick Fior, now the manager of live racing, admits five or six years ago he'd go home from the last race of weekend, and sweat bullets how he could pull off another race card next weekend. "I couldn't sleep," he says.

Five seasons back bettors at the track would wager $12,000 to $15,000 -- and that was for the entire season. Some races went with five horses . . . or even four.

At the beginning of the year there might not be 175 horses in the horse barns and there was so little hope horse breeders in this province were turning to more profitable things -- like farming! Weep no more. The Sport of Kings is back.

Marquis Downs and its racing program is back. Not only has it survived, there is optimism that the industry might even 'flourish' in the conceivable future.

By the final race days of the 2006 season, the grandstands were jammed.

Bettors put $825,000 through the wicket window.

When this year's 30-night race card program begins tonight, there will be upwards of 350 horses in the barns.

Three of the seven races are scheduled to go with a 10-horse field. Two others have nine.

The minimum prize purse per race has doubled to $3,000 from where it was five years ago and Wednesday, Fior and Prairieland CEO Mark Regier announced that this year's Heritage races in mid-August will feature $100,000 in purse money -- two and a half times what it was just a year ago.

There were days, not that long ago, Regier confided, where he'd go home one night and say "that's it." And then the next morning he'd come back to work and say "OK, what does it take to make this go." And he, Fior and others in the industry would sit down at the chalk board and go back to square one.

The first step was to get the idea across that horse racing wasn't just gambling.

There will always be the serious bettors, but Praireland had to convince people horse racing was entertainment.

It rejigged its dining room to a first class facility that serves very good food at very good prices. It brought in chuckwagon races for the annual fair, to provide another perspective on horse racing. It told people there was nothing wrong with betting just 25 cents amongst friends on races, and said come on out, sit and have a coffee or a beer, and watch and cheer.

Gradually that message got across.

But the biggest change came when Regier and company realized smaller was better. There used to be 55 nights of horse racing, three-day programs and afternoon racing. Not only were people not interested in going to Saturday or, more particularly, Sunday afternoon races, they didn't like the four-, five- and-six horse fields and they stayed away.

Prairieland cut it to 50 nights of racing, then 40, and now 30. They run Friday and Saturday nights, when people have time on their hands. They've cleaned up the place -- this year the parking lot has been paved -- and they've become much better marketers for their product. The two-card race program in every Friday's StarPhoenix gave the sport maximum exposure and with the increase in attendance came an increase in betting. Regier says he's hopeful down the road minimum purses might be raised to $4,000.

Do that and you get better horses.

Better horses draws more spectators, and more spectators raises purses and maybe, Regier says, one day the Saskatchewan Derby might be up there with the likes of the Canadian Derby in Edmonton or the Queen's Plate in Toronto.

That might seem like an awfully long shot, too, but then just getting the sport back on its hooves, and to the point where today sunshine seems to be blessing the industry, also seemed impossible not that long ago.


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