Buzzworthy: Lively debate over whether Western Fair should add passing lane

by Garnet Barnsdale

The Raceway at Western Fair caused a buzz this past week simply by posting a survey on the Standardbred Canada website asking respondents if they’d like to see a passing lane at the 1/2-mile oval situated in London, ON.

The survey asks website visitors this question: The Raceway at Western Fair District does not presently have a passing lane, but is considering installing one that would span half the length of the homestretch. Would you like to see a passing lane of this length at Western Fair?

They were asked to vote, picking one of the three options below, followed by the percentage of voters who chose each option so far:
Yes, I’d like to see a passing lane of that length
38 per cent (740 votes)
No, but I’d like to see one slightly longer
30 per cent (585 votes)
No, I’m not in favor of a passing lane at all
30 per cent (580 votes)

When Raceway announcer Shannon “Sugar” Doyle shared the survey on Facebook, responses came fast and furious, both in favor and against the passing lane.

London’s perennial leading driver – and the nation’s leading dash winner – Bob McClure offered this comment: “I think having a passing lane would limit the flow in the race which is what’s great about that track.”

Driver Jody Jamieson, fresh off winning his first Canadian Pacing Derby with Sintra last weekend, saw it differently. “No matter who is driving nor where they are driving, I don’t see a passing lane causing any negative affect on the handle,” he said. “I appreciate all the opinions, but consider this: If almost every horse has a chance at the head of the stretch, does that not add to the excitement and betting experience of each patron/horseperson and fan? Sure, it’d be a different dynamic, but I believe it’d be for the best of the product!”

Bettor Russ Adams – who quite often acts as a guest handicapper at The Raceway – is dead-set against the installation of a passing lane. “Like the saying goes if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “Western Fair is having its best five-year run ever as a racetrack. Why ruin it with a passing lane that make the races boring with way less flow? Its one of the biggest reasons why I love playing this track. You have to race aggressively and not wait to get bailed out in the passing lane.”

Sugar Doyle is another that can be counted as in favor of a passing lane. “My thought is yes, racing is great at The Raceway — lots of flow with movement usually starting at the opening quarter mile.” Doyle said. “A short 1/16 mile ‘escape route’ would be a ‘last ditch effort’ for a ‘locked & blocked’ type to ‘salvage’ something. I can’t imagine any driver would ‘wait’ on a 1/16-mile lane to try for a win.”

The Raceway at Western Fair’s general manager, Greg Blanchard, explains why the poll was posted on the website in advance of The Raceway’s winter meet. “This was something we had given consideration to this off season and the goal of a survey was to simply gain some substantial and constructive feedback,” he said, noting he wasn’t surprised by the differing opinions. “We figured that opinions would be mixed and that is exactly what we have seen.”

So, is a passing lane at The Raceway a done deal, considering 68 per cent of respondents have indicated they are in favor of some form of it? “We won’t base our decision to try it or not try it solely on the results of this survey but we will certainly factor in the feedback and opinions that were expressed,” Blanchard said. “Having said that, if the results came back as a resounding no than we likely wouldn’t contemplate it.”

Blanchard, who has made several positive changes to grow the business in his tenure at The Raceway, said he is happy to see that, regardless of which side of the passing lane debate people take, most agree that the product in its current state is very good. “I was encouraged to see that the general sentiment from those who commented online is that they enjoy the style of racing in London,” he said. “I happen to concur and only want to try things that we feel can enhance the on-track product. If we do opt to go ahead with the passing lane, it would be for a trial period only. If it were to diminish the product in any way we wouldn’t hesitate to go back to what we currently have in place.”

What about the opinion some have that a passing lane would limit the flow which The Raceway is now famous for? “I personally don’t think it would change the amount of movement and flow in our races because of the distance of passing lane we’re contemplating.” Blanchard said. “It would begin approximately halfway down the homestretch, so waiting for the passing lane as a strategic move will be highly risky. I see it a ‘last chance’ option for the horse that’s caught in heavy traffic late to perhaps salvage some money or to hit the board.”

The effect a passing lane might have on racing flow at The Raceway remains to be seen, but the prospect of it sure caused a buzz this week in advance of the track’s popular winter meet. Stay tuned.