Beyond the Bubble: Truro Raceway successfully handles pandemic year

by Melissa Keith

There won’t be Sunday afternoon races this weekend in Bible Hill, NS. It’s not a sign of a COVID-19-related halt to live racing; on the contrary, the year-end Dec. 13 card ran as scheduled last Sunday, bringing in $25,182 (Cdn) on just eight races. The half-mile track, established in 1865, had to delay its April 10, 2020 season opener due to COVID-19 precautions. Racing resumed June 5, to a warm reception from bettors, fans, and horsepeople.

It was a year of records at the Maritime oval, with Yankee Osborne and driver Neil MacInnis pacing to a 1:52h flat victory Atlantic Grand Circuit Week. The fresh track record was nearly equalled the same night by Gold Cup and Saucer winner Time to Dance (Marc Campbell), when he captured the July 18 Lindsay Construction Cup Invitational in 1:52.1h. Track records were rewritten in seven different pacing divisions this year, led by Woodmere Stealdeal’s 1:54.1h performance in the Maritime Breeders Stake Oct. 18, the co-fastest mile by a freshman pacing gelding in Canada this year.

Horseplayers and fans were allowed to attend races all season at Truro Raceway, with COVID-19 precautions in place. They, plus online bettors, responded with a seasonal single-card record handle of $36,306 (Canadian), wagered from all sources July 18. It was surpassed on Oct.18, when the track handled $36,971 on a stakes-heavy card. Although the virus brought uncertainty, the Atlantic provinces were less affected than most of the world, allowing for the local sport to bring a sense of normalcy during troubled times.

“It brought people back to harness racing, and to wagering responsibly online,” said Kelly MacEachen, the track’s general manager. “Some people didn’t want to show up and be around people and have to wear a mask and all that stuff, so I think it took a lot of people to online wagering and watching from home, as well as on site.”

An “Atlantic bubble” that permitted travel between the three Maritime provinces hosting live harness racing temporarily allowed for free movement that helped the tracks stay open. “Safety was paramount, just to get our season in,” said MacEachen. “The last thing we needed was a COVID outbreak at Truro Raceway, because that would have been the end of it. Everyone’s cooperation was key to making the season a ‘go.’”

While it was announced last month that the track’s general manager would be stepping down at the conclusion of the current season, she told HRU that she would be staying on for the foreseeable future. “I don’t really have an official last day,” she said with a laugh. “It’s just a tough time to hire, because we finished the race season, we’re in the middle of these renovations, and nobody really knows the building and the project like I do. […] I’m fine to continue to do it as long as they need me to.”

The “building” and “project” in question are the CA Douglas Grandstand and its refurbishment, currently underway. It was rebuilt after a fire in the early 1980s, but was increasingly showing the fatigue of nearly four decades’ use. This July, the provincial government allocated $4.63M (Canadian) toward repairs.

Late in the season, patrons were restricted to the apron, as the grandstand was closed for the extensive repairs. “Phase One is done now, and they’re kind of rolling into Phase Two, which is going to consist of a lot of demolition,” said the general manager, who was often found helping out in other roles around the facility. The first phase of renovations involved “only reinforcing the structural seal, to prevent the building from swaying in the wind. It was swaying three inches in every direction. It didn’t have proper bracing, and the structural steel wasn’t enough to support it. It should be solid now.”

The next phase mainly consists of reinforcing “the envelope and building: the windows, the doors, the roof; upgrades to electrical, the downstairs washrooms, ceilings and lights. Also, an entirely-new crow’s nest, with a safer way to get to it.”

When the 2021 racing season begins, it will be with a fresh look to the grandstand, said MacEachen. “We’re just waiting now for the big crew to pull in this week. Last week, they were doing their safety assessment and whatnot. As soon as the holidays are over, they should be going in to pull out ceilings.”

She and track announcer/race secretary Joe Kelly are currently taking care of paperwork and licensing requirements for 2021. “The first date that I applied for was April 23,” she noted, adding that she expects a 34-card season in 2021. “It’s tough for us to get going any earlier than that. We get a thaw around then, but the track underneath is kind of hard to get the pylons in. On the surface, we start to get a lot of mud up around the Horsemen’s Club [on the first turn]. I think that’s a realistic date for us, assuming the construction schedule is what it should be. Fingers crossed!”

Ten years ago, to this very week, Truro Raceway was in grave financial trouble. Debt and threats of permanent closure continued into the new decade. “Then we split from the Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition Commission, and we were smart with our money, said MacEachen, who volunteered with the NSPEC before becoming Raceway manager. “If you pay your bills first, and yourself second, it’s a foolproof model.” She negotiated debt to manageable levels and ended the 2019 season early, to turn the fiscal page in 2020. Truro Raceway finished this year in the black, she confirmed. “We had a successful season.I don’t think I’d change anything, if I could. It went well.”

On a personal note, MacEachern said she was grateful for the dedicated staff and volunteers, as well as the loyal horseplayers who stayed with the track through 2020. A special horse also brought her a memorable season: “Saulsbrook Quick retired this year, and I was around him since he was two years old. My ten-year-old daughter, Callie, was around him since she was five days old. I tried to jog him one day, and he ran away with me on the track, and came off the track on one wheel. It was so nice to see him retire at age 14. How many make it that long, and just about every start at Truro Raceway? It’s bittersweet, but a much-deserved retirement for him.” Saulsbrook Quick finished second in his final career start, December 13 at his home track.

The challenging year was a milestone year for its manager, and for Truro Raceway’s sustainability. “We’ve just come so far as a company, since we opened up almost three years ago now,” the GM told HRU. “Three years ago, honest to God, I didn’t know if there was any way that we were going to make it, but to be in the position we are now, going strong and finally getting the renovations that we need.” Improvements to the backstretch, like fresh gravel in well-worn areas like the ramp to the racetrack, plus the continuation of the popular fractional Hubtown Horse Owners Club, are positive signs, even as the track’s OTB (Brewsters Bar and Grill, in Bedford, NS) faced intermittent closures.

When Maine’s Scarborough Downs raced its last-ever card November 28, it marked the loss of another small East Coast track “that we shouldn’t need to say goodbye to,” said MacEachen. She cautiously predicts a continued uptrend for Nova Scotia’s largest racetrack, particularly after COVID-19 is under widespread control. “I think that the potential is there. We just have to utilize it in the right way, with the community and the government on board. So big hopes for next year.”