From Then Until Now:
The story of Marquis Downs and how it survived 50 years of peaks and troughs
As Marquis Downs celebrates half a century of pounding hooves and hard-fought victories, we take a look back at the uneasy history of horse racing in Saskatchewan and how Marquis Downs, and the Saskatoon Exhibition, have played a leading role.
Making it legal
Horse racing began in Saskatchewan as a main source of entertainment for the early fairs. As many of the early settlers to this area were British colonists, as well as avid and expert horsemen themselves, it stands to reason that horse racing came to the province as a pre-established and beloved pass-time. While it is unclear exactly when the races began, one source from 1884 states that, at the very first Saskatoon exhibition, there were “trotting races with prizes” which sounds distinctly like the description of a horse race.
By 1907, horse racing had become a highlight of the exhibition for many; not only because they liked to watch the horses run, but because they loved to bet on them as well. At that time, however, the newly-formed provincial government had not given grants to fairs in the province where open pool betting was permitted. In 1908, the Exhibition was moved to its permanent location and at its first fair held in 1909, horse racing was very much a part of the annual event. It wasn’t until 1912 that open betting at the horse races was permitted by law. Later that same year, changes to provincial legislation empowered the Exhibition to lease pari-mutuel machines and grant space to licensed bookmakers. Horses from Regina, Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver were attracted to the races in Saskatoon.
Not the only show in town
Although horse racing was finding its stride among fair-goers, automobile racing had begun to infringe as an alternate form of entertainment for the race fans. The first mention of automobile racing is found in 1911 and a show from 1913 declared, “As there are half a dozen car owners in the city who have been boasting for the past six months of the respective merits of their respective motors; it is expected that a sensational race will be witnessed.”
As if the allure of motorized races wasn’t challenging enough, in 1917 as World War I raged overseas, betting was abolished by the government for a short period of time, before commencing in the early-1920s. As compensation for the elimination of betting during those lean years, the Exhibition introduced the ‘Mule Derby’ as an alternative, which consisted of a race between Exhibition officials and civic dignitaries, mounted atop saddled donkeys!
The gilded age
The golden era of Thoroughbred racing at the Saskatoon Exhibition began in the summer of 1928, with the opening of the new grandstand, built to replace one destroyed by fire a few months prior. That very same grandstand remains but is now home to the EX main stage (SaskTel Grandstand) acts and serves multiple operational purposes for current-day Prairieland Park.
Back in the day, however, the grandstand saw a lot of on-track action. As the horses, riders, managers and officials (many of them colourful characters in their own right) changed over the years, so did the facility. The first press box was a simple plank nailed to the back row of seats where, on windy afternoons, the chart men and sportswriters could be seen chasing their copy through the stands. Eventually, a properly-enclosed press box was constructed and one great day, it was equipped with a telephone.
Jockey rooms were also lacking in the early years but were improved as attendance and mutuel play increased. The track itself was always a bit of a problem, especially after heavy rain showers. The need for a new, longer track was becoming increasingly evident to the Saskatoon Exhibition board.
When one door closes…
The old track era ended in 1968 when Smokes of Spring, a Calgary-born horse, won the last race on the final day of the meet, ending 41 years of thrills and chills at the grandstand. Later that fall, Saskatoon ceased to be a member of the Western Canadian Racing Association, because the cities of Calgary and Edmonton decided to have a longer racing schedule. As a result, Saskatoon partnered with Regina to form the Saskatchewan Jockey Club to look after provincial racing, and the idea of a new track began to take shape.
On April 23, 1969, hundreds of workers invaded the south end of the Saskatoon Exhibition grounds to begin construction of the city’s new $500,000 race track. With the first race set for less than three months down the road, this was an ambitious task, to say the least. Many said it couldn’t be done and, ironically, more than a few wagers were placed that the track wouldn’t be finished on time.
Jack Evans, Saskatoon Exhibition manager of racing, was largely responsible for the project’s success. When his crew hauled in the over 30,000 yards of dirt needed to make western Canada’s newest five-furlong race facility, no time was wasted. Even heavy rains totaling over two inches didn’t deter progress, as the well-laid surface quickly drained the water into the infield. With a nine-inch blow sand sub-base and topsoil surface, the track was designed to be rolled into a hard surface for harness racing or harrowed into loose dirt, favoured by runners. At 90-feet across, Marquis Downs became Canada’s widest oval, built to accommodate eight harnessed horses abreast behind the mobile starting gate.
The completion of the grandstand was another major accomplishment. The modern structure, made of steel, concrete and glass, was constructed from pre-fabricated pieces that were moved to the site for assembly.
Originally, the outdoor grandstand featured 3,276 seats with standing room for 6,000 on the tarmac at track level. All was engineered with future expansion in mind, including indoor clubhouse facilities and dining areas, which would follow in the years to come. Wiring was laid for a complete lighting system to accommodate eventual night racing; great foresight on the part of the project managers and engineers, as post-time now sits at 6:35 pm throughout the summer meet.
A new day dawns
Triumphantly, Marquis Downs officially opened on July 14, 1969, a mere six months after engineers commenced design on the project. The opening day followed an outstanding public open house, where Saskatoonians were invited to inspect the facility and bear witness to a few qualifying races — a taste of what was to come in the following 12-day meet – the biggest harness meet in the history of the sport, up to that point. Molson’s Breweries sponsored the driving awards and put up The Molson Golden Plate for the track record.
That plate holder would be Nealie Oliver of Beechy, Sask. who held the track record at the end of the meet. Oliver was also given another trophy for piloting his horse, Dixies Adios, to victory in the featured Marquis Downs Inaugural, setting a new provincial record of 205.3. Only days later, Dixies Adios bettered that mark by almost two seconds, creating a new high watermark for the track. By all accounts, it was an exciting opening meet filled with star performers, record breakers and a beautiful new plant for horse racing to call home.
The inaugural season at Marquis Downs also represented the Saskatoon Exhibition’s single greatest changeover in its racing history. Traditionally, thoroughbred racing had been in the spotlight at the annual fair since 1928, but with the construction of the new track, harness racing would be the main attraction… at least for the time being.
Setting the pace
Right out of the gate, Marquis Downs was attracting healthy crowds to witness all the drama. Harness racing appeared on the edge of a gigantic boom during the early-1970s, evolving from a mere hobby into a lucrative race business. The year 1973 was a peak season for sulky crews, which had already seen harness action in Regina and Edmonton, and were in prime racing condition for their 12-day stint at Marquis. However, by 1979, the future of harness racing was in question. The sport’s popularity had diminished and was not drawing the crowds of previous years; Thoroughbred racing was becoming a fan favourite.
While the fans were enjoying the on-track entertainment, it was as early as the 1971 season when harness racers began to ask for improvements to the condition of the barn area, which after
It seemed as though the darkest of days were behind them. Current Manager of Racing, Rick Fior, took the reins in 2004 and by the following year, Marquis Downs was reporting that grandstand attendance was up, the races were as competitive as ever and the average handle had increased 45 percent from the average just five years earlier.
After a 17-year absence, Standardbreds made a re-appearance at the Downs track. Following the Thoroughbred meet in 2005, a 15-day harness racing meet got underway for a trial run. Modest success kept it going until 2010 when it was once again discontinued.
The only constant is change
Over the years, the racing program at Marquis Downs has shifted and changed with the times. Standardbred racing ended its run in 2010, making Marquis Downs an exclusive Thoroughbred racing facility once again. Despite significant changes over the past several decades, today Marquis Downs runs a robust 24-race meet between late-May and early-September that draws large crowds of eager and enthusiastic race fans.
No finish line in sight
In the off-season, while the horses and jockeys take a much-needed rest, the staff and management of Marquis Downs are hard at work planning the upcoming season and making changes to ensure the highest quality racing entertainment is always available for their loyal patrons, as well as taking care of the provinces three off-track betting theatres. The future of Marquis Downs looks bright. As of 2019, Marquis Downs continues to be the only licensed racetrack in Saskatchewan.