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JONES: Public's performance in initial reopening will dictate direction of sports

Journeyman ridden by Dane Nelson, right, pulls ahead of Explode, ridden by Amadeo Perez, for the win at the Canadian Derby at Century Mile in Edmonton on August 18, 2019.
Journeyman ridden by Dane Nelson, right, pulls ahead of Explode, ridden by Amadeo Perez, for the win at the Canadian Derby at Century Mile in Edmonton on August 18, 2019.

It’s a tantalizing twist, a compelling contrast and a delicious dichotomy.

Usually it’s the public focused on the teams and the players. Now it’s the teams and players focused on the performance of the public.

How the public performs in restaurants, bars, barbershops, hair salons and so many of the ‘non-essential’ shops and stores now allowed to reopen will have a lot to do with when the players and the teams get to play in this province.

Thursday is Opening Day!

OK. Nobody is going to shout, “Play Ball.”

There are no players on any field perspiring in public for pay. There are no kids’ games underway with parents sitting in lawn chairs to watch them play.

There isn’t a whistle being blown or an orange being peeled.

But Thursday is Day 1 of Stage 1 of Alberta’s COVID-19 relaunch and the focus now splits in two different directions.

One focus will be for Dr. Deena Hinshaw and friends to carefully monitor the results of allowing those establishments to open under reduced capacity. The other will be to begin bringing the sports world into play.

Assuming Albertans handle themselves with the same remarkable common sense most have managed so far, the sooner sports fans can focus forward to Stage 2.

The sports spotlight now shifts from the successful opening of golf courses to setting up the structures to allow for NHL teams to return to practice facilities in the province and for the CFL teams to contemplate holding some manner of training camp to prepare to play a potential eight-game season starting in September.

It also moves entities such as Calgary’s Cavalry and FC Edmonton to the front burners from the back and allows the U-Sports teams, junior football, high school sports and a long list of others to begin to enter the conversation of salvaging seasons in the fall.

The focus now switches to the first real live action and that’s still set up to be horse racing.

On Tuesday, Woodbine shifted gears to fast-forward to allow timed training and jockey breezing as well as starting gate training. And that leads to the question as to whether Century Mile will run neck-and-neck with the Toronto track or be left at the gate?

Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson went on record Tuesday as projecting an opening weekend of June 6 and even suggested a TV deal is close to being finalized with live-programming-starved TSN.

Much of what is now happening at Woodbine in terms of having horses on track in final training has already been well underway here. But there doesn’t seem to be the same apparent timeline being put more firmly in place as seems to be the case down east, where they’ve yet to swing a golf club.

Century Mile is now planning to be part of Stage 1 before the end of the month, however.

“We are gearing up to reopen some of our dining and food and beverage venues during Stage 1,” said Geoff Smith, Century Casino senior vice-president of Alberta operations.

If successful, it might mean the track, casino and onsite betting on the races could happen in unison.

“The combined entertainment experience of a day at the track complemented by our casino gaming floor and dining amenities is our desired product offering to begin when each is deemed safe to do so for our employees, industry partners and guests.”

So what is he saying there, exactly?

The reopening of casinos, expected with every second machine not in play, to begin with perhaps, is more than a desired entertainment product. A percentage of the casino profits go into the purses for the races and there are mostly moths in those purses right now.

So you have to ask the question: Would Century Casinos be willing to open with no casino or racetrack wagering and gradually phase that in at 25 and 50 per cent?

“Yes. All those options are potentially available and definitely achievable when safe to do so,” said Smith. “Our reopening plans are near complete and will be ready to go. I am certainly optimistic that horse racing in Alberta will be back in gear soon.”

That is music to the ears of Norm Castiglione, president of the Horseman’s Benevolent Protection Association.

“The HBPA of Alberta is encouraged to hear plans for reopening are nearing completion and that horse racing in the province can resume when safe to do so,” he said. “The thoroughbred horsemen are ready and able to begin racing when they get the green light. It will take approximately two weeks from getting the go-ahead for the track operator and governing bodies to have both staff and protocols in place.

“At the track, there are now more than 400 horses in training. We continue to breeze and have timed works. And we will have the required pool of jockeys in place by opening day.”

But just what day might that be?

June 6? June 13? June 20?

That will likely be up to the behaviour of the people in the bars and restaurants.

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @ByTerryJones

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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