Wire To Wire: Retirement of Martin, Clarke not a great sign for racing’s future

by Dave Briggs

With the proliferation of racinos and casino companies that run them, the dearth of racing people running racetracks not only becomes more glaring by the year it is also another troubling sign for the sport’s future.

This year, the sport will lose two of its better racetrack executives with the retirement of Jamie Martin and Dr. Ted Clarke in Ontario. We’ve known for awhile that Martin will retire from his post as executive vice-president of racing at the Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) at the end of 2017. This week, it was announced Clarke, the general manager of Grand River Raceway in Elora, ON, will retire at the end of September at the conclusion of the track’s live racing season.

Clarke, who was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame as a builder in 2014, is one of the sport’s true gems. He is a man blessed with intelligence, modesty and the respect and admiration of his colleagues both on the racetrack and in the boardroom — which is a damn rare thing these days.

He is a true champion of both the smaller tracks and common sense — another rarity in the racing game — was the driving force behind saving Elmira Raceway from bankruptcy, the creation of the Industry Day card that gave birth to the Battle of Waterloo and Battle of the Belles stakes races, the building of Grand River Raceway and the growth of the sport overall in Ontario. Clarke was also key in helping rebuild when the Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP) was killed by the provincial government.

The retired veterinarian will turn 70 in July, and deserves a break, but he will be impossible to fully replace and will be deeply missed. Let’s hope the board of the Grand River Agricultural Society that operates Grand River Raceway chooses his successor very wisely.

Martin, who went from running Western Fair Raceway to the top racing job in Canada at WEG, is a rarity. He is standardbred man in charge of the racing at a dual-breed facility. As WEG has taken on more people with a corporate — not racing — background, Martin has represented the sport with quiet aplomb and helped WEG retain its status as one of the top racing outfits in North America, especially on the harness side.

My fear is once Martin retires it will mean: 1. His position as the dual-breed racing man will be eliminated with the breeds going back to their respective silos in an era when those breeds are physically being separated between Mohawk and Woodbine and the standardbreds out of the Greater Toronto Area entirely. 2. He will be replaced by someone without any real experience in the standardbred game. 3. He will be replaced by someone corporate without any racing experience at all. All of which would likely mean standardbreds could lose equality and influence in the WEG boardroom.

It’s too bad WEG parted ways with Bruce Murray many years ago. He had the makings of an obvious successor — a person with the skills, passion and lifelong experience in the game.

Which brings me to another concern.

Racing often bemoans the lack of young people on the track and in the stands and what that portends for the game’s future. Yet, as big a concern is the lack of talented younger racetrack executives.

Sure, there is Jason Settlemoir at the Meadowlands and Greg Blanchard at Martin’s old stomping ground — The Raceway at The Western Fair District — and a few others. But we’re not exactly tripping over bright, young racetrack executives that have experience with the subtleties and challenges of the harness game.

I don’t think it’s a matter of racing overlooking bright, younger candidates. I don’t think all that many exist that have the tools to either run a racetrack outright like Dr. Ted Clarke or the racing side of a major outfit such as WEG.

Their retirements create yet another cause for concern about racing’s future.