The following is a first-person account from Standardbred trainer Matt Bax.
I’ve always said that you can’t be in horse racing if you don’t love it. Each morning and every night, I am reminded of just how much I love it. And the thought of it being taken away from us again worries me so much. Both in the short term, and how a shutdown may impact the industry in the long term.
We totally appreciate that many other industries are being impacted by the pandemic, too. When people say, "buy local" – that’s us. Everything we do to run our racing operation is supported locally. We buy feed and equipment and use veterinarian and blacksmith services.
When you look at those big manufacturing plants that employ thousands of people and are an engine for the local economy – that’s us too. Without spectators, we are merely working the craft we love and providing a product to the public. We have our health and safety protocols that we all follow, and none of us want to be the one person who is responsible for a COVID-19 outbreak, so we take those protocols very seriously. We are so extremely thankful to be racing during these difficult times.
I’m so thankful and grateful for the opportunity to be a Standardbred trainer — and to do something I love. I’m grateful to work with some of the finest equine athletes in the world. I’m fortunate to be able to provide my family. I take great pride in being in an industry that employs thousands of hard-working people, and I’m proud to be part of something that contributes significantly to the economy, locally and provincially.
Through good times and bad, the horse racing community has always been bound together by a passion for our craft. The amount of hours and dedication required to be successful is unlike any other industry. Even when you’re not working, you’re watching the races or reading stories about racing – it’s something you live and breathe.
The first thing I do when I wake up – 5:30 every morning, seven days a week – is to go down to the barn on our farm and feed all the horses. The horses, they always come first. Then I’ll come home, get a coffee, have breakfast and get the kids ready. My wife and I get one on the bus, and then I take my three-year-old son down to the barn, and start the day there.
The horses are always happy to see you when you come out every morning, and I’m just as happy to see them. It gives you a great feeling every morning that you’re connecting with the horses, seeing what’s going on with each one, and knowing that they are all okay.
The longer you go in the business, the more you understand the little things can go wrong each day. When you get that baseline off of feeding them, it helps relieve any anxiety you might have. You worry about them because in every way, they are your family – all 24 that we have with us, plus the broodmares, the young ones and the retired ones that are on our farm.
In many ways, the horses are just like people, just like your family and friends. You want to make sure they are happy, healthy and loved.
Like any business, you also need to have a strategy in place, both short- and long-term. With horses, it takes meticulous planning to ensure each one is given the best opportunity to succeed.
We have a board where it maps out when each horse is racing, their pre-race training and routines. You set that up each week. I sit down with my dad [longtime successful trainer and owner John Bax] and we talk about what we want to do with the horses. Some have ended their two-year-old season, so then you start having to map when they’re going to come back. From there, it changes day to day for every horse. If the horse isn’t feeling well, or is feeling sore, it’s critical that you are able to care for them. You have to be able to adapt to every situation that comes your way.
Every day is different. Every day has its challenges and every day has its rewards.
There is always running around to do, whether you have to go to the tack shop or the bank to do all the books. You have little jobs to do in the afternoon. I pick my daughter up when the bus drops her off, and then she and her brother get half an hour of quiet time, whether that’s reading or schoolwork. Then it’s on to bringing in all the horses from outside, and feeding them.
Being able to share my love of horses with my family is one of the most cherished things I have in my life.
My kids are pretty well-versed in the barn because they’ve been able to spend a lot of time there the past while because of the pandemic. They have a little pony named Licorice that they take care of. At night, they’ll run out to the paddock and bring her inside. It’s nice that they have an animal to take care of. It teaches them responsibility.
They learn those tough lessons too, like taking care of her, feeding her and things like that. Then there’s the joy of it. They dressed Licorice up for Christmas and they jogged her outside. That’s pretty cute to see, and I hope to be able to see much more of that for years to come.
It’s one of many reasons why I hope that live horse racing continues on at Woodbine Mohawk Park and other racetracks across Ontario. In a business where so much goes into the animal, we, as well as the majority of horsepeople, are on a shoestring budget as it is. To be shut down again would really hurt us all, as it’s such an unscheduled stoppage of income. There are no corners to cut.
Horse racing isn’t simply a source of joy for all of us – it’s also our livelihood.
The pandemic has had a devastating effect on so many industries in Ontario, across Canada, and around the world, horse racing included.
Woodbine Entertainment has done a fantastic job in establishing strict COVID-19 protocols at racetracks throughout the pandemic, as have the other racetracks in the province. Everyone has done an outstanding job to ensure the safety and welfare of the horses and horsepeople. The racetracks have adapted so well throughout the pandemic — in establishing new protocols and also making it a top priority that everyone adheres to them — so that we can keep racing. They know how vital it is for people in this industry to have racing continue. We cannot afford to shut down again.
People in the horse racing industry, they don’t take sick days. If you’re not at the barn taking care of the horses, there aren’t a lot of people to pick up the slack. And if we don’t have racing, then it would be devastating for all of us. For those who work in the industry, and for the love of the animal, we need racing to continue.
What we do is tremendously impactful in terms of contributing to the economy. You think about how many times the dollar changes hands coming from horse racing. It’s a very economically diverse industry. There aren’t too many like it. A lot of people don’t see the economic pluses from horse racing, just how wide and diverse it is in the economic sense. You have farms, farriers, feed people, harness racing equipment makers – this industry supports and is supported by so many other businesses and sectors. We’re very lucky to have such a vibrant horse racing industry in Ontario, with thousands of people working hard every day to make it a world-class sport.
When I made the decision to have a career in horse racing, I knew I was going to be part of something special.
Many years later, I know I still am.
You have to be all-in with horse racing. And that’s why people are in it. You fall in love with the horses, the people and everyone that contributes to it. It’s something I think of the moment I open my eyes each morning, right before I fall asleep, and every time I watch one my horses line up behind the starting gate.