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Shutdown Poses Major Implications

Published: April 18, 2021 3:03 pm ET

Last Comment: April 24, 2021 9:52 pm ET | 5 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

A fortnight may not seem like that long, especially in comparison to the 403 days since the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. However, the two-week extension to the current shutdown imposed on Ontario horse racing that was announced on Friday (April 16) has delivered a major aftershock to the entire industry — and the effects of this extended shutdown threaten to compound existing damage already done to racing in Ontario, from the nation's capital to the far reaches of the province.

The exodus of horses — and horsepeople — to the United States began during the January shutdown, but has been decidedly more pronounced since Premier Doug Ford's administration issued the third hiatus at the beginning of April, and even more draconian restrictions imposed in the past couple days have many horsepeople reeling — especially while other professional sports are continued to operate.

"The government says, ‘We’re in this together,’" Rideau Carleton Raceway track announcer and horseman John MacMillan recently told the Ottawa Sun. "Well, we’re not in this together. Those words make us really mad. In a shutdown, there are the people who still get their paycheque and those of us who don’t. Would the government people have made the same decisions if they were losing their paycheques?"

The situation at Rideau may be dire — but likely not irreparable, as many of the horses who race there and at smaller circuits that dot the Ontario countryside are not of stakes calibre, thus not missing out on the six-figure paydays of marquee races through the warmer months that serve to pay the bills year-round. Still, the exodus of horsepeople who do have the stock and flexibility to compete elsewhere, and furthermore, the exodus of horseplayers who made Rideau a Sunday night staple and fuelled the purse account with their wagering dollars, will have lasting effects on the health of harness racing in the nation's capital.

"They aren’t going to hand it back to us," said Peter Andrusek, racing manager at Rideau. "Our customers we worked so hard to attract, they’re now watching other tracks. It’s going to require tremendous effort on our part to bring them back. If our horse supply starts to deteriorate, that will compromise the quality of our live race program when we do resume racing. If we lose 50 per cent of the wagering ... It’s the wagering that feeds the purses that feeds the program. It’s a vicious cycle."

Ontario horsepeople were left without opportunities to race in April and May of 2020, and once again in January and February of this year despite having proven their ability to operate safely within, effectively, "bubble" environments on racetrack backstretches and training centres. While the second shutdown was, admittedly, a bit easier for the industry as a whole to weather on account of stakes horses being on their winter layoffs, the current stoppage — right as the 2021 stakes season is due to ramp up — threatens crippling effects, as horses and their trainers will pick up for greener pastures or leave the sport entirely.

"People are going to make moves very quickly starting now," MacMillan, who also serves as the horsepeople's representative for the National Capital Region Horse Association, continued. "I’m talking to people who are going to different places: Ohio, Indiana, New York, New Jersey. Anybody who has the ability to move the horse will."

One such Ontario-based trainer has already uprooted for the States in a more permanent fashion than in past shutdowns: Anthony MacDonald, founder of, has moved his home base to Northfield Park, near Cleveland, for at least the next four months. Half of the 126 horses he manages are in Ohio, more than triple the amount that typically race in the United States during the lucrative stakes season. And while MacDonald is fortunate to be able to enjoy such mobility, he feels for those who aren't.

"We were fortunate some of our caretakers were able to come with us. If they hadn’t, they would have been unemployed," he said. "To put somebody living in Ontario in a position where they have to move or not have a job — that’s the situation I was in — it’s tough. Everybody is on shaky ground."

What makes matters all the more frustrating for MacDonald — and many others whose livelihoods depend on purse money tied to races that have been put indefinitely on hold yet again — is that horse racing's clean public health record in comparison to other sports has been summarily ignored by government officials, thus putting thousands of livelihoods at stake ... and unjustly and unduly, in the opinions of many.

"We have proven our industry is safe to race in," MacDonald continued. "I would ask and hope the government could explain to me, an average person, how there have been no outbreaks in horse racing and we cannot operate in the capacity we are in. Hockey, baseball and basketball — all sports where there have been multiple outbreaks — they’re welcome to go ahead."

April 24, 2021 - 9:52 pmI feel for the horsemen in

I feel for the horsemen in Ontario but we in Alberta have been off the track for racing since Dec 12. and as a small owner I am close to wits end since late Feb, early March I am not blessed with high claimers or open type horses. My trainer and I have to scrape for every purse dollar. If you were blessed with the good money earners you probably still made more than $5,000 net income and thus receive some federal aid. But when your net income slips under 5 thousand you are cut off from any and all possible aid. So life goes. The little guy gets kicked in the butt, yet I can't give this sport up. It's time for our premiers to learn from the many governors in the US who run the many states who have racetracks running-thoroughbreds and standardbreds. Its time to open our racetracks in Canada and also change net income levels back to gross income to make government aid fair if the powers in government keep us closed

April 20, 2021 - 7:59 amHaving read Mr. Horner's

John Vance SAID...

Having read Mr. Horner's opinion I find little to disagree with and I know he is on the horse racing side. However, the people who train and groom these equine athletes HAVE to be there looking after them whether they're racing or not. You can't just walk away. I see very little difference between the daily training routine that must go on and racing, save for the judges required in the stands.

April 19, 2021 - 10:52 pmAs the only major sport in

As the only major sport in the world where the professional athletes (performers) cannot, will not, and are genetically immune from getting or transmitting SARS-COVID-19 and the many variants and pathogens associated therewith.

Why are the leaders and ownership of our sport not able to be proactive about these factors and capitalize on the current FACTS?

April 19, 2021 - 1:47 pmAnthony was (not lucky) able

Anthony was (not lucky) able to take American breds south. What he has left in Ontario are Ontario breds getting ready for Stakes. They had qualified once and were to go a second time but didn't get the chance. They are being unduly harmed. I have 2 3 year olds in that position and 4 2 year olds. It's my only entertainment, sitting at home watching them train and race. Hope I last till the end if this year and get a chance to see them for awhile. It's not covid that's killing us it's our Provincial government. Is there not a way we can just go ahead and race? There must be some purse money hanging around even if it's very little.

April 18, 2021 - 8:11 pmI agree that, on one level,

Scott Horner SAID...

I agree that, on one level, there seems to be irrational inconsistency on who can carry on business and who cannot do so. With respect to major professional sports, as part of the protocol with the Canadian Feds and applicable Provinces, every athlete and other team member is tested daily. If positive, the athlete or other team member goes into isolation. Has racing offered that before any participant enters a racetrack, the participant will present a that day negative test?

There also is the fact that harness racing is economically and socially minute and is publicly subsidized compared to any major professional sport-tele rights/advertising in the billions for each sport. As Quebec’s Premier Legault stated at a press conference on his Province’s first lockdown: At least we can watch the hockey. I would be surprised if every participant in major professional sport hasn’t been vacced now. A more realistic comparison for harness racing would be to local restaurants, bars, hair and beauty salons and other small businesses who have suffered as much or more than racing’s participants. I am on racing’s side. I offer the above for perspective.

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