by Brett Sturman
These are indeed interesting times we live in. Like virtually every other industry across the globe, harness racing is constantly assessing and determining its best path forward amid the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
As several U.S. tracks have recently made the decision to suspend racing, including the Meadowlands, a small number of tracks continue to race for the time being. For these tracks, what it comes down to is weighing the risk of conducting racing against the known impact of what is certain to happen if racing is closed.
Until late Thursday, when the decision was made to postpone racing until further notice, one of those tracks still racing was The Raceway at the Western Fair District in London, ON, though, it was doing so without any spectators — as are all tracks still conducting live racing. As of this past Sunday (March 15), Western Fair closed all its facilities to the general public and only essential personnel was allowed during racing.
Greg Blanchard is the director of marketing and communications at the Western Fair and is acutely aware of the dynamics that come with racing at present time.
“As is the case all over the world, it’s not something we’ve ever had to deal with before, so it’s a very strange situation to say the least,” Blanchard said Wednesday prior to Thursday’s decision to postpone racing. “Here at Western Fair, we’ve tried to take the lead of Ontario Racing and Woodbine Entertainment, who has certainly taken the lead on it here in Ontario. In conjunction, we have been monitoring the various health authorities. We’ve got our local health authorities – Middlesex London Health Unit – you’ve got the provincial health units and you’ve got the national Public Health Agency of Canada. We’ve been monitoring their recommendations pretty much hourly and in concert with protocols that Ontario Racing and Woodbine are suggesting and putting in place to follow that and stay in line with what they’re doing.”
Woodbine announced Thursday evening that it was postponing racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park effective today (March 20). Western Fair then followed suit.
For all its troubles, harness racing is a closely-knit community. The industry has been particularly rocked by COVID-19 related deaths to horsemen John Brennan and Carmine Fusco. Which, on one hand, would seem to make it obvious that racing needs to be suspended indefinitely across the board. But, on the other hand, it’s critical that industry participants be able to continue to sustain some type of living.
“The primary reason that (we were) trying to keep this going is for the horsepeople whose livelihoods are at stake,” Blanchard said. “It’s critical for these folks. And their livelihood depends on racing and having purse money available to race for. Having said that, this is a very serious worldwide situation. That’s why we’re monitoring on a regular basis. It’s hard to look very far down the road with this, it’s kind of a day to day thing. And as long as these various health organizations are saying its safe within these parameters and as long as we’re doing all those things, then we’re trying to hang in here for as long as we can. It’s new territory for everybody.”
Like anyone else looking at the situation, I can readily admit that in the overall scheme of things, the amount of money bet on the Western Fair races don’t really matter. But, simply through racing, Western Fair is providing an invaluable service to harness racing enthusiasts and bettors.
In times of mass uncertainty and confusion, it’s important that some normalcy be maintained somewhere. With sports and essentially everything else in the U.S. and Canada in process of being shut down, it was nice to be able to watch harness racing from Western Fair on Wednesday night and if you’re like me, continuously make the mistake of over-betting decent looking horses from post #7. The fact the track ran even through Wednesday was good not just for the race participants, but for anyone trying to maintain a sense of normalcy.
Though acknowledging the recent increase in Raceway handle, Blanchard was quick to downplay it. “There’s no questioning that the remote wagering has gone up because there are fewer products. But, to us, that’s not a consideration. It’s so secondary at this point. To be honest, the incremental revenue doesn’t come close to offsetting the other factors. I’ve heard people talking about that and of course wagering is very important and something that we’re always focused on, but it really takes a backseat in this scenario. The numbers are good, but we’re certainly not celebrating or getting excited about it, it’s just the way it is.”
Mere hours after Blanchard and I spoke Wednesday afternoon, the Wednesday evening card at Western Fair shattered the all-time wagering mark at the track when it turned in a handle of $992,536 over the 11-race card. The prior record was just $795,590. The track press released noted that the record handle was buoyed by two different Pick-4 pools, but I’d contend it was more buoyed by those fans and bettors equally appreciative that there was any racing to follow and bet on to begin with. The handle of just shy of $1 million is symbolic of the welcomed efforts by all for the track to keep racing.
In just the last day, apart from Woodbine Mohawk Park, Flamboro Downs and Pompano Park both announced they were temporarily ceasing racing operations.
Blanchard said Wednesday it was only a matter of time before the inevitable occurred and racing was halted in London.
Thursday evening his words proved prophetic.