Rideau Rebuild Key To Strong Season

Peter Andrusek and Al Thibert at Rideau Carleton Raceway
Published: August 10, 2023 03:33 pm EDT

When Rideau Carleton Raceway’s paddock burned down on Feb. 15, the Ottawa racing community had to act quickly to save racing in the national capital region.

The team at Rideau Carleton mobilized to renovate an old barn into a paddock, and racing began on April 2, after a minor two-week delay from the March 19 scheduled opening and avoiding a catastrophic cancelled season.

Funded by Ontario Racing’s Capital Improvement Program, the renovation took a herculean effort from racetrack staff and local horsepeople to materialize.

Rideau Carleton backstretch manager Al Thibert (pictured above with Peter Andrusek) recalls the cold February evening he was out for dinner with his wife when local horseperson Ted MacDonald called him to say the paddock was on fire.

The February paddock fire at Rideau Carleton Raceway

“We kid around a lot, and I said yeah right, and he goes, ‘No, seriously, the paddock is on fire,’” said Thibert. “Maybe 10 minutes after that I got a text from [track surface manager] Jeff Taylor who sent me a picture and the [paddock] is on fire. Then I was like, holy, I’m devasted.”

With the season hanging in the balance, Thibert and Taylor consulted with local horsepeople and came up with a plan to turn unused Barn D into a paddock. They approached Rideau Carleton general manager Peter Andrusek with the idea just a few days after the fire.

Impressed with the plan, Andrusek prepared a submission to Ontario Racing.

“We put a business plan together and Ontario Racing was one hundred per cent on board,” said Andrusek. They were prepared to allow us to use the capital that’s available and direct it to this essential project.”

As part of the funding agreement with the Ontario Government, $6 million is distributed annually by Ontario Racing for capital projects at applicable member racetracks.

Each year, racetracks submit a detailed business plan describing uses for capital funds. Examples of previous capital funding projects at Rideau Carleton include state-of-the-art track lighting, HD broadcast upgrades, a new toteboard, a first-class starting cart as well as modernizing the entire infield.

“All these investments through Ontario Racing have elevated Rideau so we could be competitive,” said Andrusek.

While funding is distributed based on approved business plans, the program has been built with the ability to adjust timelines and spending where needed to respond to urgent scenarios. The potential of a season-ending fire impacting the livelihoods of eastern Ontario horsepeople clearly met the definition of urgent.

With funding secured, work began to transform an unused storage barn into a paddock for Rideau Carleton’s meet.

“The only thing that was there was the roof,” said Andrusek. “There was no power in it, no water, there was nothing in there. We had to put a stone foundation in and build the stalls. It was just a barn that hadn’t been used in over 30 years.”

Step one was to clear the three decades of accumulation from the barn.

Rideau Carleton put out a request for assistance from horsepeople through the National Capital Harness Horse Association and the response was overwhelming. Nearly 100 volunteers attended the site and took part in the two-day cleanup.

“The turnout was phenomenal and that gave us encouragement to keep going with it,” said Thibert.

The hours were long and the work was hard, but eventually the paddock began to take shape with Thibert and Matt Donald leading the charge.

“We’re racing today and we raced pretty well on time because of Al,” said Andrusek. “That guy was relentless. In less than five weeks, they had the paddock to a level that the AGCO [Alcohol Gaming Commission of Ontario] was prepared to approve. The AGCO was incredible to work with as well.”

Trainer Robbie Robinson was one of the horsepeople who participated in the cleanup and continued to volunteer his time helping Thibert once construction was underway.

Rideau's Barn D was renovated from a storage barn into a paddock for the 2023 racing season.

Barn D was renovated from a storage barn into a paddock for the 2023 racing season.

“It was pretty amazing how quick that everything got done, and the turnaround,” said Robinson. “A lot of credit to getting the paddock done on time to Al and Matt. They did a fantastic job.”

Thibert was willing to work the long hours because he knew how important racing is to the local community.

“A lot of the horsepeople are my friends and it affects everyone at the racetrack who has a job,” said Thibert. “Everyone from security to paddock judges, there were a lot of people involved, and if we aren’t racing, there are a lot of people who lose their jobs.”

All of the people Thibert, Andrusek, Donald, Robinson and others had in mind during the long hours saving the 2023 racing season came together on April 2 and the camaraderie and pride felt from the opening after just a two-week delay has continued throughout the Rideau Carleton meet.

“People are helping each other and getting along well,” said Robinson. “A lot of people have enjoyed this meet so far, and because of how we are situated, it’s more of an old school, grassroots kind of thing,”

(Ontario Racing)

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