This past weekend, I did something I haven’t done in a long time.

No, it wasn’t changing my socks and/or underwear. Although, in my current state of employment (which would be ‘un’), the daily ritual of clean socks/briefs seems less and less important. No, I went to the horse races at Northlands.

I went because I couldn’t resist the lure of $10 in free wagering. As part of their continuing efforts to lure gamblers away from the slots and poker tables and back to the track, Northlands distributed a brochure that included a $10 coupon for betting. So, I rustled up enough coupons to take my sons to the track for a free afternoon of — ahem — ‘horsing around’.  (Sorry about that.)

Horse racing is having a tough go of it lately. In the olden days (and by that, I mean the 1960s and 1970s), horse racing was fabulously popular in Edmonton. As I recall, Edmonton was one of the top horse racing locations in North America. That’s because for many years, gambling was considered a vice, and illegal in all forms. Until the government discovered how much money they could make from lotteries, the only lottery tickets you could buy in Alberta were for something called the Irish Sweepstakes. (Despite its name, I believe you won money, and not Irishmen.) Horseracing was the exception. If you had gambling fever, the only (legal) cure was the ponies. Race results were a big enough deal that I remember radio stations announcing race results, although who that appealed to, I do not know.

Once a year, during Klondike Days, Northlands was allowed to run a casino, which my mom would attend almost without fail, leaving in the AM and coming home in the late PM, sometimes with more money than she left with, more often than not with less. Over time, gambling restrictions loosened when governments realized that the moral questions regarding gambling were getting in the way of easy profits. Thanks to the glut of slots, so easy to play that a reasonably skilled monkey could literally win as much as a human being, the ‘sport of kings’ was dethroned.

The gaming glut almost killed horse racing, and if it were not for a generous infusion of gaming cash from the horse-friendly provincial government, it might not even exist today. Horse racing is in a fight for its life, quite a change from its golden era when it was the only game in town.

Northlands has done a really nice job of making the horse racing experience a pleasant one. Parking is free (a shocker for those accustomed to paying for parking at Oiler games), and there is no admission charge. The facility is modern and clean, not the least bit skuzzy, with non-threatening clientele who seem to be enjoying themselves, with a nice restaurant and plenty of food and drink options (if you want to spend $5 on a burger, which I most definitely do not).  Basically, betting on a horse is easy. Pick a favourite, decide if you think it will finish first (win), second (place) or third (show), put down as little as a toonie, and you’re set for a minute and a bit of excitement.

But … horse racing can become insanely complex, if you want it to be. Buy a program, and you will find every conceivable fact about every horse — the trainer and meet stats with in-the-money percentage; the horse’s color, gender, age and bloodlines; state or country where it was bred; its current and previous race records; frequency and texture of bowel movements; etc. All the information is contained in a bewildering chart of numbers and words and symbols that require a degree in Egyptology is decipher. The good thing is, though, that you really don’t need to know any of this information. You can go the scientific route and study the chart, or bet on the horse with the prettiest color, or a name that speaks to you. I would have been a fool not to bet on a horse named, say, Maurice’s Winner, or Seriously, Tougas, You’ve Gotta Bet on Me. By the same token, a horse named Glue Factory, or Hasn’t Won Yet, may not be the best idea.

Overall, it was a pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon. We actually won one bet we made, profiting to the tune of $8.75. Our other choices were so bad, I think some of them are still on the track. But it was fun, and quite benign compared to other forms of gambling. I’ll go back, particularly if the fine folks at Northlands feel inclined towards handing out $10 gambling vouchers again.

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