A moment in history: March 1, 1965

A moment in history: March 1, 1965

· The Pulse

On this day in 1965, construction was starting on a major expansion to the Northlands Park horse track.

In its heyday in the last half of the 20th century, Northlands Park was dubbed a crown jewel in Canadian horse racing. But it came from a much more humble start. Near the turn of the century, horse racing was a casual pastime for many of the families living near Rossdale Flats. As Edmonton's population grew, the sport became more popular, and Northlands Park was established as an official racetrack to replace the routes in Rossdale in 1900. The track was one of the venues run by the Edmonton Exhibition Association, which would later rename itself Northlands.

While races attracted a good number of spectators and hopeful gamblers in those early decades, the popularity of thoroughbred racing began to climb in the 1920s. That was largely thanks to horse breeder and race organizer R.L. Speers, who staged regular race events in Edmonton, as well as other cities across Canada.

Speers was also the founder of the Canadian Derby, which he first ran in 1930 from his own racetrack in Winnipeg. The prestige (and the purse) of the competition grew over the next couple of decades. When Speers's racetrack closed in 1956, the Derby found a new home at Northlands Park (or Northlands Spectrum, as it was known at the time).

With a new grandstand and casino built only a few years before and now the host of one of the premier events in Canadian thoroughbred racing, Northlands drew both crowds and competitors. Full-time harness racing would be added to the park in 1961 after a push by city councillor Bill Connelly.

By the 1970s and '80s, Northlands Park was a hub of horse activity. The track was holding races five or six days a week, with daily bets sometimes reaching more than a million dollars.

The sport began to decline in popularity, and even for those still interested, simulcast races meant spectators and gamblers no longer needed to be at the track to watch the races. Later, online betting would deal another blow to attendance. Within the Northlands organization, pressure began to mount to leave the racing industry altogether.

By the mid-2010s, the finish line was in sight. The aging facility would need expensive upgrades to continue. The Canadian Derby moved south to Leduc, and Northlands Park held its final horse race in 2018, a few months after the closure of Northlands Coliseum, which is to be demolished in 2025. Northlands itself met its end in 2021, transferring responsibility for the exhibition lands and its remaining events to Explore Edmonton.

This is based on a clipping found on Vintage Edmonton, a daily look at Edmonton's history from armchair archivist @revRecluse — follow @VintageEdmonton for daily ephemera via Twitter.