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Excitement For Racing's Return

Published: June 4, 2020 9:24 am ET

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It’s a sound Blake MacIntosh and Sharleen MacDonald can’t wait to hear again.

When the horses line up behind the gate for the first race at Woodbine Mohawk Park on Friday at 7:00 p.m., it will be music to the ears of one of Canada’s top Standardbred trainers.


“We’re pretty pumped and excited to seeing the horses race, and to get that feel of competition again,” said MacIntosh, who is approaching 900 wins for his career. “It’s been tough (not racing). We run a big operation, so you go from multiple horses a night to nothing, and no income coming in. So, to even enter horses to qualify is a joy. But this Friday, it’s going to be a huge thrill to see them in racing action, and to be able to take in all those sights and sounds again.”

One day later, at Hanover Raceway, a groom who has worked 15 years in the industry will experience the very same moment.

“It was so great to qualify the horses last week at Hanover, and now, to know that we will be racing on Saturday, it’s hard to describe the feeling,” said MacDonald. “I know everyone is really excited about it. You really miss being around the people you know through racing. That’s been tough, but everyone has worked hard to get to this point.”

The 60th season at the southwestern Ontario oval will have 15 Saturday race dates in 2020, running from June 6 through to September 19, with a new post time of 2:00 p.m.

MacDonald, who grooms for brothers, trainers Randy and Jack Rier, has another reason to be excited about opening day at Hanover.

Charmbo Chrome, a six-year-old son of Manofmanymissions, owned by the Riers, will be making a return of his own.

The trotter, who has bankrolled just over $100,000 in his career, is slated to start in the fifth race on Saturday’s 10-race card.

“He hasn’t raced in two years,” said MacDonald. “He had some time off, and when he came back, he was hurt and needed some more time off. We’re anxious to get him back racing. He’s a really nice horse. He gets bored easily and likes to play with things. He sometimes has plastic jugs or dog ropes that he likes throwing around. He’s quite entertaining, so it will be nice to see him out there again.”

Small wonder that these opening days – and others across Ontario – have taken on special meaning for horsepeople.

Live horse racing in the province, suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will be the first major sport in Canada to return to live competition.

MacIntosh, once again, has several standouts in his barn, including three-year-old pacing stars Groovy Joe and Beach Blanket Book. Groovy Joe will contest race six on Saturday night at the Campbellville oval, with Beach Blanket Book in action one race later.

Both are eligible to contest the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup, now slated for Saturday, August 29 at Woodbine Mohawk Park.

He’s eager to see what they and others under his tutelage have in store for 2020 and beyond.

“The horses, they want to race as much as we do,” said MacIntosh, who has four horses (Sweet Chapter and Sports Column are the other two) entered to race at Mohawk on June 6. “They’re sick of training and they want to get at it just like we do, to have some fun out there. It’s going to be exciting, and it’s going to be good for the pocketbooks, to help pay the bills. It will be nice to have some money rolling in again. It’s been a big hit to us. I own 60-something horses myself. It’s been tough to pay the bills.”

MacIntosh, coming off a year in which he set several personal-best marks, including wins (102), acknowledged the efforts of industry leaders throughout COVID-19.

“I’ve always appreciated everything about this sport, but I’m truly grateful for Mr. Lawson (Woodbine CEO, Jim Lawson), COSA and Ontario Racing for what they’ve done to get us back racing. Without Mr. Lawson’s relationship with the government and his hard work, we wouldn’t be where we are now. I’m very appreciative of what they have all done for us, to get us back to doing what we love, and in the protocols they’ve set up for us to be able to achieve that.”

And while the new normal, at least for a certain period of time, means adhering to the detailed protocols that have been put in place at Ontario racetracks, MacIntosh, who also continues to have success in the U.S., understands their importance to the industry.

“I think everybody realizes that we have to work together, and we will work together. Getting used to being six feet part is tough because we’re so used to going up and talking to the drivers, or talking to the grooms. The grooms want to talk to you when the horse does well in a qualifier – they’re just excited about the horse, and understandably so. As we get more and more used to it, we’ll keep moving in that right direction, and adhere to the protocols. We all want to make sure we keep racing, and move forward.”

While there won’t be any spectators in the stands for now, MacIntosh sees this time as a welcome chance to reengage those who wager on horse racing, and to showcase the product to thousands of potential new bettors.

A big key in making that a reality? Putting on a must-see show.

“I’m hoping we can get the people who were betting on our races back, and I hope we are able to attract new people as well. For both, it will be an opportunity to showcase what a great sport it is to watch and how exciting it is to cheer for a horse that you bet on.

“With Woodbine launching DarkHorse (an innovative app for horse racing built with the sports bettor in mind) this week, that’s going to be a huge upside, too. There are so many positives that have come out of a negative. We’ve got to take advantage of it and put on a good show. We have to make sure that we as horsepeople are in this together. We can all work together as one. We have a fantastic sport and this is a wonderful opportunity for us.”

As for his band of pacers and trotters, whether they win by the social distancing measure of six feet, or by a scant nose, isn’t of any concern to MacIntosh.

“I’ve never worried about that,” he said with a laugh. “As long as they win, I’ll gladly take it.”

He’s thrilled to have that chance again.

(Ontario Racing)

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