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Dale Woodard

It’s once again time to get your derby on.

Twenty-seven years after it charged from the gate, the Rocky Mountain Turf Club is back at the track this summer for another go-round of fun for the whole family.

Fittingly, the opening weekend of racing coincides with the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, allowing those attending the RMTC track to get into Derby mode.

“You can come and bet the horses here and then we have the Kentucky Derby,” said Max Gibb, CEO and principle of the Rocky Mountain Turf Club. “Get your Kentucky Derby hats on.”

After starting back in 1996, the Rocky Mountain Turf Club continues to ride proudly.

“We started humbly with 12 race days and purses were $600 and stakes races were $800,” said Gibb. “Now, we’ll have 33 race days this year and a $5,000 minimum purse. We’re a major driver of economics for Lethbridge and southern Alberta, tourism agriculture and (keeping) hundreds of people employed. Horse racing has been important in Alberta and southern Alberta for years. In fact, if you saw the movie Sea Biscuit, three of the main riders actually all came from Alberta. It’s a great history of horse racing and we’re excited that we’re going to have a great year.”

Horse Racing Alberta is a not-for-profit corporation, governs horse racing in Alberta, promotes and facilitates the growth and integrity of the sport, protects the health and welfare of animals and participants, safeguards the public interest and is a net contributor to the Alberta Lottery Fund.

Alberta horse racing touches every community from 400 farms and ranches, 7,000 people, 7,100 horses and 259 race days a year.

As an added bonus this year, there will be at least three weekends of the always popular Warrior Relay Races, said Gibb. 

“We are the only province and we were the first race track ever to get Parimutuel betting approved for Warriors Relay Racing. Warrior Relay Racing is so exciting.

“A third of our horsemen – owners, trainers, grooms and jockeys – are First Nations and we are one-of-a-kind in having that. The Blackfoot Nation and the Cree Nation have been so supportive and we know we’re on Blackfoot land.”

The excitement of the opening weekend aside, there have been some hurdles along the way in the form of the pandemic.

“Our business was closed nine out of 24 months and that’s always a struggle,” said Gibb. “But we’re back and we’re good and everything appears to be as good as we’ve ever been. Our attendance on all of our programs so far have been good and back to normal.”

Rocky Mountain Turf Club general manager Rose Rossi said the pandemic and its restrictions gave track manager Dot Stein a tough job in the back stretch.

“You look at everything that has happened with COVID and travel restrictions and getting people cleared, I know she had a tough job. We have people from everywhere that travel to be here, either across the state line with their horses and our jockeys who come from places like Jamaica, Mexico and even our provinces. They do need to be here earlier so they can start getting the horses ready. A lot of training goes in for both the riders and the horses.”

Now, it’s time for fans to get their derby on, place a bet and enjoy the atmosphere of another summer at the track.

“It’s all about the race fan and getting people comfortable again and getting out,” said Rossi. “I still have sanitation stations and social distancing. Let’s just be smart about things. We’re outdoors, which is great.”

If you don’t want to be outdoors, the Rocky Mountain Turf Club also has rooms with a view.

“Rain or shine, you can come in and enjoy the races,” said Rossi. “We have the third floor and the fifth floor available to the public as well.”

Just come out.

“I want everybody to get into the pageantry of it all, bring it together and show Lethbridge what a gem we have,” said Rossi. “Not every community has a race track. There are only six tracks in Alberta and a couple on the reserves as well now that Warrior Races are starting up and going full force. It’s exciting times.”

Rossi said there’s a horse for everyone, but there are also activities for all ages during a day at the track.

“We have Milo’s Petting Zoo and stick horse races for all ages – not just the kids – the candy scramble and the jump up and shout. We have this great photo booth that is a lot of fun to help you derby it up. There is a lot going on.”

Twenty-seven years later, the racing continues at the Rocky Mountain Turf Club.

“There used to be horse racing in every community, two days, and Lethbridge and southern Alberta has been a race centre, no question about it,” said Gibb. “The community and the rural Lethbridge have loved horse racing and now it’s all centred in Lethbridge and it gave a come-together of all the community.

“The other thing is the horsemen are excited and enthused and love it. I’ve had unbelievable staff. They’re caring and compassionate and the Alberta Community Recreation Race Association has been totally supportive. I think all of the things have come together. We continue to grow.”

Now, the community at large lines up to place their bets this summer.

“People are enthused and people want to see it again and are excited to have it happen and we’re excited to have them,” said Gibb. “There will be great horse racing and there will be great Warrior Relay Racing here at the Lethbridge Rocky Mountain Turf Club.”

Visit rockymountainturfclub.com for all races, events and schedules.

Post time is 1 p.m. and admission is free.

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