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Rideau: Challenges Amid Return

Published: June 13, 2021 2:12 pm ET

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Racing is set to resume at Rideau Carleton Raceway this evening (Sunday, June 13) after being forced to go dark for nearly 2-1/2 months as a result of Ontario's third wave of pandemic-prompted shutdowns. That serves as extremely welcome news — relief, even — to horsepeople throughout the vicinity of the nation's capital, as well as to Peter Andrusek, racing manager at Rideau. Yet, despite the raceway being able to reopen the curtain on live competition, Andrusek feels the most recent wave of shutdowns will compound existing challenges.

"Frankly, it’s probably going to take a year, maybe more, for me to get us in a position where our audience outside of the racetrack for off-track betting was as big as it was going into COVID," Andrusek recently told the Ottawa Citizen.

Before racing shut down abruptly in March 2020, Rideau had worked to establish a stronghold on the Sunday night simulcast market, not just in Canada, but across North America. While able to weather the first shutdown and a second one that effectively lasted for the month of January, this most recent stoppage — one that saw racing in the United States continue uninterrupted — was doubly averse for Rideau and other racetracks across Ontario: First, horseplayers' attention has been commanded by American racetracks; and second, numerous Ontario-based horsepeople relocated to the States, with some of their returns not a matter of "when" as much as "if."

Despite the most recent shutdown, the harness racing industry across Ontario capably proved its ability to operate safely — "We never had COVID in here; not a sniff of COVID," as Andrusek said with respect to the Rideau backstretch — through the past year. Still, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his administration did not permit horse racing to continue during the last shutdown while other professional sports maintained their operations, albeit modified. And that exclusion struck a tense nerve with horsepeople and racing management across the province.

"It’s not for lack of trying to explain to the powers that be," said Jonathan Zammit, executive director of Ontario Racing. "Horse racing is a professional sport that has very good protocols.... All we’re asking for is a fair playing field."

"You took a very fragile agricultural industry, and you chopped away and chopped away at its foundation," said Anthony MacDonald, Ontario-based founder of who, in April, relocated his family to his secondary base in Ohio. "And the fact that there was much of anything left is shocking."

Now, for those tasked with operating harness racing in Ontario, the opportunity to build back is nigh — but one challenge at a time. With the return of on-track spectators still a ways away, Andrusek's immediate task at hand is to help Rideau regain its place among the premier Sunday night simulcast signals on both sides of the 49th parallel. Fortunately, his prime partners in that endeavour — the horse population on the Rideau backstretch and the people who train and care for them — are returning nearly intact.

"Our horsemen have gone through a lot," said Andrusek. "I salute them for their resilience."

(with files from the Ottawa Citizen)

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