The history of horse racing in Lacombe

Community has a rich background with aspects of the equine industry

In July 2006, the Rocky Mountain Turf Club of Lethbridge came courting Lacombe in their search for a Central Alberta site for a one-mile racetrack.

One of the principals already owned property in the County having acquired the quarter section previously owned by Viking Log Builders. By December 2007, the chosen name ‘Alberta Downs’ was well-known in the community and plans were nearing completion for the one-mile dirt and 7/8 mile turf track located beside QE II Hwy. one mile west of Lacombe.

Two months later the County approved the rezoning of this parcel from agriculture to commercial, and public hearings were scheduled for March 20 at the Lacombe Legion.

With public acceptance assured, the principals proceeded to construct the oval race track, implement an impressive landscaping plan, erect stables and other out-buildings and construct the grandstand.

The rest is history. Alberta Downs quickly became a vibrant reality in Lacombe County, attracting a host of fans province-wide for each weekend event. A most impressive track record; however, old-time residents of the community may be forgiven if their memories take them back to stories more than a century old when horse racing, the most robust entertainment then available, was provided annually on July 1st.

Ray Bagley recounted one year when, “There were not many white people but about 700 Indians and 3,000 horses. We raced horses for a solid week into the village, sometimes from the north and sometimes from the west.

“There was one race of 70 Indians and horses. A horse in the lead fell and those following piled over the top like floodwater over the dam. Miraculously, the rider escaped with nothing more than bruises but his horse was dead. That Indian sat on his dead horse and cried as though his heart would break.

Someone took a hat and passed it around, collecting more money than the horse was worth. His tears were dried and it didn’t take long for the squaws to get the hide off the horse. Soon many Indians were eating horse meat.”

Another Bagley story of a pony race in about 1900 concerned an event west of the C&E Trail on Barnett Ave. where the women had to ride the steeds bareback.

A grandstand seat for some of the horse racing events on Barnett Ave. was provided by the front steps of the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church constructed in 1895 and in use by that church until 1909. That site is now occupied by Neighborhood Place.

Henry Kolterman, who came to homestead in 1891, built a livery on the site where the Victoria Hotel would be built four years later (now the CIBC site).

He also built corrals to hold horses he trailed in from Montana for sale to settlers and these corrals became impromptu rodeo grounds as potential buyers tested the mettle of horses that caught their fancy.

From there it was only a short step to organized rodeos and horse racing. Ray Bagley was the most enthusiastic supporter of both sports.

Pregrave Winter who built Arcade livery stable about 1900 was the first to offer the services of ‘blooded stallions.’

These were the thoroughbred stud ‘Superior’ and the Kentucky stud ‘Jack Captain D’.

The competing livery, ‘Tice and Fortune’ also got into the act with John Fortune one of the leading figures in the sport of sulky racing.

Following him into the sport were James Douglas, George Hotson and Dr. J.B Harrington.

Harrington, the first resident veterinarian in Lacombe, established his practice in 1901. His particular pride was his pacer, Skyland Patch – grandson of the famous Dan Patch.

Fred Taylor, a blacksmith by trade and chief of the Lacombe fire department from 1907 to 1918, was also a leading figure in harness racing with his horse ‘Captain Derby’.

In 1907 the Agricultural Fair and associated events moved to the 30-acre site purchased from Mrs. McWilliam, the location presently occupied by the Livestock Pavilion and the Lacombe Agricultural Society. Here a banked racetrack was established which continued in use into the 1940s.

The minutes of the Lacombe Agricultural Society for May 9, 1907 carried the following item: Turf Association formed at meeting in Mobley’s Hall. President A.M. Campbell, Vice President P.H. Winter, Secretary-Treasurer W. Crow, Executive Committee E.K. Strathy, John Fortune, Geo. Hotson. Two-day track meet planned for June 21-22. Purses up to $1,500 will be hung up. Mobley, Gourlay and L.B. Brown to arrange stables etc.

Subsequently (June 13) the minutes recorded – “Horse races postponed due to mud.”

Horse racing as an organized sport fell from favour with the advent of the First World War when all the young men and many of their parental generation enlisted and departed for the battlefields of Europe. Interest in the sport sufficient to merit media attention did not revive until the promoters of Alberta Downs came calling in 2006.