'It's happened really quickly': Prairieland says goodbye to thoroughbred racing – and reveals plans for soccer league
SASKATOON -- Prairieland Park has announced a partnership with Saskatchewan based company Living Sky Sports and Entertainment that could bring a professional soccer team playing in the Canadian Premier League to Saskatoon by 2023.
“We were approached by Living Sky Sports here to look at a stadium for a CPL franchise,” said Prairieland Park chief executive officer Mark Regier.
“It's happened really quickly here, but when you get a partner that approaches you with a great opportunity, you’ve got to run with it, and we have.”
LSSE co-founder Alan Simpson says he envisions a 5,000 to 6,000 seat stadium built where Marquis Downs horse racing track currently stands.
“I know Prairieland Park is prepared to to make a capital commitment, I know that my company Living Sky Sports Entertainment is prepared to make a capital commitment, and then depending on on where we land in terms of capital costs, I think it's realistic that we may go and look for assistance from the municipality, and the provincial government,” he said.
“If we can refurbish the grandstand in a way that kind of reflects and honours the legacy of the downs, and add some new seating, that in itself is what we think will lend itself to the long-term sustainability of the soccer club.”
Regier says the stadium would be the centre of an entertainment district, with a waterpark planned in close proximity.
“For our park and for this area of the city here, we think that with 15 to 18 games, so with 5,000 to 10,000 people at these games, it's going to be big for the city on this part of it,” he said.
Commissioner of the CPL David Clanachan says a potential start date of 2023 for the new club is aggressive, but doable, if they can get shovels in the ground by spring 2022.
It will be up to Prairieland Park and LSSE to get a stadium deal done, Clanachan says, and in the meantime there’s an opportunity to communicate with soccer fans in the province about what the CPL can bring.
“The market’s ready for it,” he said. “Fans are what makes this happen. And because soccer is a community, it starts at the community level, the sport right, and that's how we built our other clubs, that's how we've been successful so far.”
Simpson says he’s prepared to invite other founding partners or community partners who would participate as owners of the franchise.
“We're in the entertainment business, and people have to have a reason to come down and enjoy themselves,’ he said.
“We need to do things that attract not just hardcore soccer fans, but casual sports fans and families, and have some pregame entertainment, postgame entertainment, and at the end of the day the stadium is not being built just for for soccer, it's built for the community of Saskatoon.”
The announcement could mean the end of horse racing in the province.
“Horse racing has struggled, it’s struggled for many years,” said Regier. “We've tried and tried to support it, we have lots of great people in the industry, but you know it's just a declining sports field.”
“We just felt that we had to do what's best for the long term survival of our corporation, but also for the city and the province as a whole.”
For Saskatoon jockey Nicole Hein it’s disappointing news.
“It does effectively end horse racing,” she said. [Prairieland Park has] the monopoly, they have the only racetrack, it's the only place that you can conduct legal horse racing. They have everything there to conduct it and they're letting it sit dormant, so the people who normally run here have to go out of province.”
Hein says she rode in Winnipeg in 2020 when racing at Marquis Downs was cancelled, and doesn’t want to leave Saskatchewan to do what she loves to do.
“I want to be home, I should have the right to settle here. I shouldn't have to live the nomadic life and travel from racetrack to racetrack — I want to be here,” she said.
“I want to ride in front of my community, I want to support my province and the economy, and all of those people that I know. I shouldn't have to be forced to get up and move somewhere else because somebody doesn't want to take responsibility for the thing that they're entrusted with.”
At this point, Regier says a new stadium being built is not a done deal.
“There's a lot of work to be done here, we're contracting a sporting engineering firm out of Edmonton to design the stadium and give us an opinion of probable costs, so then we can determine what kind of capital financing we need, and ultimately whether this will work for us.”
President of the Horsemen Benevolent & Protective Association Eddie Esquirol says horse racing is a $37 million a year industry in Saskatchewan - and Prairieland Park is the only place it can happen.
“There's no other place to race, other than Marquis Downs, because they own the license for the para-mutuel wagering,” he said.
He argues that since Prairieland Park is agriculturally zoned land, they shouldn’t be there to profit from a soccer stadium.
Esquirol says the HBPA has asked the provincial government for funding for horse racing, as well as asked for a separate non-profit corporation to lease Marquis Downs race facility from the City of Saskatoon so racing can continue.
He says he’s not against professional soccer in the city, but horse racing is an industry worth salvaging.
“Don't bring the soccer facility into Saskatoon at the expense of terminating an industry that's been around in the province for 100-plus years.”