Lacombe’s Track on 2 Horse Racing and Event Centre is at the starting gate and rarin’ to go.
This weekend, harness racing will return to the track off Highway 2, just west of Lacombe.
The 1:30 p.m. Sunday event is a standard-bred qualifying event and fans are not yet permitted under health restrictions.
But for track owners Kyla and Kurt Belich and Ross Morrison the return of the sulkies will be a welcome site and hopefully the beginning of a successful season of racing, dining, live music and other special events.
Like most businesses that rely on spectators or walk-in business and diners, the owners already have plenty of experience operating in a pandemic and how to adjust when health regulations change.
Fortunately, their large grandstand means they have a built-in patio space for the Funky Monkey Kitchen and Bar, which has a good view of the race track and can accommodate about 160 diners under the current health regulations.
Last summer, they managed to run races through September and hosted live music concerts and other events, organizing them around the health restrictions in place at the time and taking advantage of an outdoor space in the stands that has a normal occupancy of 700.
“This last year has forced us into some ingenuity,” said Kyla. “That’s never a bad thing.
“I’m not going to lie and say that it was easy,” she said. “I have so much compassion for all of the other small businesses out there that are facing the same challenge.
“Ours is not unique at all.”
Small shelters that were used as overflow accommodations for horses were moved to the grandstand and used for parties of outdoor diners.
“You can see the bite marks on them so it’s the authentic country experience,” she said with a laugh. “I think it will make for a unique setting for future events.”
To meet public health safety measures last year they created zones for visitors and strictly sanitized all public spaces. They issued tickets so they could easily control how many people were allowed in and have simple contact tracing.
The experience gained by finding ways to make do with what is at hand to continue operating safely will serve them well this year.
Now, all they need is for the current health restrictions to be eased, returning to something closer to the rules in place last summer. Track on 2 was able to host up to 375 people split among its three spaces, the outdoor stands, restaurant and a second-floor event venue.
“For the month of June, we are already fully booked for dance events and graduation ceremonies.”
Belich is optimistic that health restrictions will be eased in coming weeks as the health situation improves.
“I’m quite confident things will begin to open up,” she said.
It is not just businesses such as hers that will benefit.
“We’re crossing our fingers, not just for ourselves, but for each of these dance companies as well … as well as the graduates.
“I know a lot of the (dance) companies are willing to proceed even if we can only have 100 people outside and not use the indoor space. They’re really desperate to perform and ramp up to the end in a somewhat normal fashion.”
Hoping for a season start of harness racing in June or July, Track on 2 also hopes to host Indian Relay Racing, where the rider dismounts and hops on another horse between the three laps. They are also ready to relaunch their Stillhouse Songwriter Sessions, featuring local singer-songwriters, as soon as events are permitted.
While the horse racing community is chomping at the bit to get started, the province has yet to give Alberta Horse Racing the go ahead to begin scheduling races this year. The organization says on its website that a number of contingency plans are in place based on whether a limited number of spectators will be allowed and whether racing entertainment centres will be open or closed.