TORONTO — The Ontario government has given Woodbine Entertainment the green light to run live horse races.
Horse racing was listed among the activities and businesses that could return or begin as of Tuesday in the first of the government’s three stages to reopen the province.
While getting horses on the track so quickly would be ambitious, Woodbine can now stick to its plan of resuming harness racing June 5 at Woodbine Mohawk Park and starting the 2020 thoroughbred season June 6 at Woodbine Racetrack.
“It’s an unbelievably huge relief,” said Jim Lawson, the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment. “I was always worried about getting caught up and not really being on anyone’s portfolio and horse-racing getting lost in the mix of businesses versus sport.
“It’s a great recognition for horse racing that they’d specifically mention it in Stage 1. But this wouldn’t happen if Woodbine hadn’t managed its backstretch the way it has.”
Woodbine had to suspend harness racing at Mohawk Park on March 19 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also postponed the April 18 start of its thoroughbred season at Woodbine Racetrack.
But Woodbine Racetrack’s backstretch has remained open throughout the pandemic. Access was limited to essential personnel to care for and exercise horses while adhering to strict measures.
On Wednesday, jockeys were allowed to breeze horses. But they had to also follow established protocol, including wearing masks.
Thoroughbred training is slated to begin May 22 at Woodbine and May 27 at Mohawk Park. Turf training at Woodbine won’t start until June.
“On the standardbred side these horses need to qualify,” Lawson said. “The thoroughbreds need to get in workouts (before racing).”
When racing begins, it will be done without fans at either of Woodbine’s venues. And strict health-and-safety measures will remain in place.
“As Premier Ford has said, this is assuming all goes well,” Lawson said. “We need to keep our guard up.
“We have a doctor on staff, we’ve got procedures, protocol and policies in place regarding how we deal with people. We’re hoping as testing becomes more and more available that we may be into a point where we’re testing jockeys and drivers.”
Woodbine is also reconfiguring the jockey’s room — which Lawson said will be complete once racing begins — while bringing in trailers for Mohawk Park drivers. Jockeys will have to wear masks from the time they enter the paddock until they reach the starting gates.
Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, said it as an easy decision to include horse racing in the first phase.
“They were up and running in any event and had the health-and-safety protocols in place as a result to care for those animals,” she said during a teleconference. “Horse racing can also be done through physical distancing.
“It has been done as they’ve been training and practising over the last number of months so it is logical.”
MacLeod also pointed to the economic benefit created by horse racing. Lawson has said repeatedly between 15,000-20,000 Ontarians are dependant upon the horse-racing industry.
“Some people may look at it as gaming or an outdated model of gaming,” MacLeod said. “I actually look at it as a very important part of rural Ontario that’s a big part of a supply chain.
“It’s a sporting competition but it’s very important to a lot of those rural veterinarians, those who sell feed and seed, to all of those rural economies where you’re filling up your tank of gas. This is a level of activity that can get back to normal because they really haven’t stopped doing it.”
Trainer Mark Casse and jockey Rafael Hernandez both praised Thursday’s announcement.
“This is important for the owners and trainers who’ve been up there since December and haven’t been able to run,” said Casse, Canada’s top trainer an unprecedented 11 times. “There’s really not a whole lot of difference (caring for horses) between when we’re running and we’re not running.
“The only difference is they’re not earning any money when they’re not running so it’s desperate times for the Canadian owners and trainers. I want to get going as much for that as anything and I mean that with all sincerity.”
Added Hernandez, who rode Shaman Ghost to victory in the 2015 Queen’s Plate, the first jewel of Canada’s Triple Crown: “Everybody needs it, owners, trainers, jockeys, grooms, everyone. How are owners going to pay for feeding horses if they don’t race? It’s good for the sport but the thing is you have to look out for the horses also.”
However, physical distancing could be a problem on the track. Throughout a race animals and jockeys or drivers are often bunched together, much closer than the prescribed two-metre distance.
In March, jockey Javier Castellano tested positive for the novel coronavirus as part of a physical mandated by Gulfstream Park. However, Castellano was medically cleared after completing his quarantine period.
“In an ideal world we’ll be able to start testing, we’ll be screening, we’ll be temperature-testing the jockeys,” Lawson said. “We’ll be putting strict restrictions on them in how they conduct themselves.
“Javier Castellano got sick early on but I’ve not heard of another jockey getting ill and they’ve been racing throughout February, March, April and now May at Gulfstream and Tampa without incident. The good news is there hasn’t been a spread of the virus amongst the jockey colony and first and foremost in our mind will be doing everything we can to (lessen) that risk.”
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press