Alberta Downs / The Track on 2, Lacombe, Alberta, June 2, 2019

Stopped by the former Alberta Downs now "The Track on 2" that's out in the middle of nowhere between Calgary and Edmonton. Purpose: Just to take some pictures of a track that briefly tried to run some thoroughbred races on turf and to say I saw it, since I never made it for their few days of thoroughbred racing that were generally canceled anyhow. Wasn't running any live races today, either, but there were two guys playing simulcasts, and a few people eating late breakfast in the cafe. It was, to say the least, quiet.

(Note: The story that follows is what's right to the best of my knowledge. If you know different, please leave a comment.)

This was a track with a strange and troubled history. It was built by a guy named Robert Allen who had apparently run some sort of non-sanctioned racetrack in or near Calgary for 20 years as part of a larger recreation facility named Happy Valley Entertainment, up until 1998, when that property was sold for development. (I saw the name once, but cannot recall it.) He then almost immediately started pitching the idea of a new "Alberta Downs" in or near Calgary which would take the place of the soon-to-exit-horse-racing-any-year-now Stampede Park. But Horse Racing Alberta and the province had other plans, and horse racing in Calgary was going to move to some fancy big new racino development.

But that deal fell through, as deals sometimes will, Stampede Park was fixin' to run its last race (in 2008), and a new Alberta Downs emerged ... though oddly enough, nowhere near Calgary, in direct contradiction to the original business plan in 2001 which stressed the necessity of being close to a population of potential customers. Nope, this new track would be in Lacombe, which is kind of a nothing town pop. 13000+ in the prairie between Calgary and Edmonton. And oh yeah, the new track would also go forward without the 150 machine casino floor that was originally planned to accompany the race track, because in 2008 the province of Alberta decided there would be no more gambling licenses allocated ... which IIRC was the primary reason the other fancy big new racino development fell through.

But Mr. Allen was undeterred and went ahead anyhow on spec with his own money (though not a lot by racetrack standards) and built a mile track with spartan grandstand facilities and a turf course inside, out next to the highway by Lacombe in what looks like it was formerly a roadside wetland that got filled in, accessed by a dinky little frontage road that apparently the city of Lacombe had paid a great deal to pave so the people of central Alberta could get in without bruising their Japanese and Korean SUVs with gravel or mud or whatever that road was before. The good times were ready to roll, and the track would open in 2009. Horse Racing Alberta assigned it a few dates and some OTB facilities, but most of the thoroughbred racing dates moved up to Edmonton, so it was primarily a harness track.

This is where I came in, keeping track of news about Alberta Downs in anticipation of an exciting and profitable road trip into the Great White North to see this new Alberta Downs track, and maybe eat some fries with vinegar. "Alberta Downs", it sounded grand. But the news was always kind of iffy. Cards would get canceled regularly, and races would not fill. And the thoroughbred dates they did have were few and far between it seemed. Who wants to drive all that way and then find out the racing you came to see wasn't going? And I have to imagine it was the same for residents of Calgary and Edmonton, who even if they weren't driving all the way from some foreign country would have to make a pretty good hour or two drive to see this track. So I never went. I suspect maybe they didn't, either.

Then at the end of the 2014 season Horse Racing Alberta yanked all the dates out from under Alberta Downs to award them to the new Century Downs just north of Calgary (which, amazingly, had managed to secure a casino permit after all), as well as yanking all HRA monetary support, and took away the OTBs. Alberta Downs didn't run at all in 2015.

In 2016 Alberta Downs got some harness race dates back and had a "grand re-opening" and was also going to put on some non-sanctioned thoroughbred racing on its turf course, featuring low level horses primarily owned by Andy Stronach of all people, which had run at places like Portland Meadows so you know they were good ones. If Andy Stronach is involved in your racing venture, how can you possibly go wrong? But go wrong it did, anyhow. They had trouble finding jockeys because apparently HRA runs things like a police state and didn't want jocks leaving other tracks, and there were more problems with cancellations, and even if you did want to go see the tbred races it would be like 4 races on the turf all day in between harness races. Carded, that is. Not necessarily actually going. And so yeah, I never went and saw that either. Though I did once go so far as to call them and ask if they were really going to have thoroughbred racing that weekend, to which I received a very encouraging, "I think so".

This new business plan was apparently not the road to success either, however, possibly because at about the same time it became clear HRA was going to back Century Gaming for another new racino near Edmonton. In 2017 Mr. Allen sold out at a substantial loss to developers (with some very unkind words for Horse Racing Alberta), left the City of Lacombe in the lurch for repaving the frontage road, stated he was quite sure the new owners would not continue with horse racing, and he was moving on to greener pastures where the horse racing establishment and government was more supportive, like maybe California. Though most recently he has been pitching the idea of horse racing in Las Vegas. But amazingly and surprisingly, the new owners did NOT redevelop the land and put luxury condos in a mosquito-y wetland right next to a major highway, rechristened the place The Track on 2 (literally, it is right next to Highway 2), got some harness race dates from Horse Racing Alberta, and that's where things stand today, in this year of Our Lord 2019 - a very rural harness track with a nice but unused turf course.

But I wanted to see it anyhow, because it was a track that had once run thoroughbreds and I had sort of halfway thought about visiting. So, after having made a quick Sunday morning detour through downtown Calgary to get a photo of Stampede Park which I had somehow failed to do on my one and only very unsatisfactory visit to horse racing at that venue in the distant past (and even now, they wanted $15 Cdn just to drive in, which I did not pay in favor of a free exterior shot, sheesh), I determined to stop in at The Track on 2 to see what I had been missing all these years, even if there was no racing. Hey, it was right there, next to Highway 2, about halfway between Calgary and Edmonton. It is, after all, ON 2!

Well, with all that prelude you might think it must have been something special, but it really wasn't. Not so much a dedicated racetrack, per se, as maybe a utilitarian equestrian event kind of place that also held horse racing. As previously mentioned, there's the dirt and turf track out front (replete with ultra-dinky toteboard) that look to have been raised out of a roadside wetland that still exists alongside the highway to the north and south, between the highway and a hill, gravel parking lots out back with a few lonely cars, a big barn or something down by turn one, a gravel apron with picnic tables that was partly covered by an open air pavilion, and behind that a small building with an enclosed upstairs - not open today - that was for the snooty race fans and local swells. The downstairs of the small building was the real star of the compound, though, the Funky Monkey Kitchen and Bar which took up pretty much all the ground floor space and featured a small bar in one corner, about 8 tables for diners, some other small bar tables, and a tiny simulcast area in one corner that had maybe 8 TVs, 10 chairs, and two self-serve mutuel terminals. In addition to the large Sunday crowd mentioned up in the opening paragraph there were two nice ladies taking care of the bar and food.

I joined my two fellow racing fans, sat down in the simulcast area at one of the 10 chairs, and watched a six horse race from Laurel Park that was won by the favorite. Boy you don't see that just anywhere. How exciting.

Flushed from all the excitement after nearly six minutes in the Funky Monkey I asked one of the ladies if it was okay if I took a break and went out and looked at their track, since I had never been there for racing. "Sure". So I did. Walked around, took a few pictures, jumped back in the mighty Rent-A-Chumpmobile, and exited back out on that nice paved frontage road the City of Lacombe had paid so much to pave.