Locked down, but not shut out

Locked down, but not shut out

April 11, 2021

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Ontario horses still welcome at Buffalo Raceway, Saratoga Harness, but Canadian horsepeople are not.

by Melissa Keith

With Ontario in a new COVID-19 lockdown since April 3, owners and trainers in Canada’s harness racing stronghold are facing some difficult questions. The most urgent is: where can they still race their horses?

Ryan Clements is one owner who has recently found mixed reactions to Canadian horses being entered stateside.

“It’s not very good. It actually seems to be two totally opposite responses,” he said, observing how Ontario horseman Anthony MacDonald has been able to enter horses and even get vaccinated in one state, while other tracks have reportedly banned Canadian horses and/or horsepeople. “Ohio welcomes him with open arms, and could potentially be a huge savior for some Canadian horsemen, but then Buffalo and Saratoga go in the exact opposite direction.”

Clements isn’t alone in his frustration. Not only did COVID-free Ontario tracks lose their ability to conduct live, spectator-less racing for an audience of online bettors; there was also a discouraging text alert from the Buffalo Raceway race office in circulation. The original text message announced: “Beginning IMMEDIATELY no Canadian horses will be permitted at Buffalo Raceway.” The message went out just as the Ontario government declared an “emergency brake” lockdown that was to shut down all racing in the province for at least four weeks. Clements said he initially wasn’t sure what to think when he saw the race office message from the Hamburg, NY track. Could it be a rumor, or a bad joke? A response on Twitter confirmed that the bad news was real. Clements noted there was “a reply from the Buffalo Raceway account saying, ‘Yes, this is us.’”

CANADIAN HORSES, NOT PEOPLE WELCOME AT BUFFALO

But are Canadians really unwelcome to race there? Race secretary Tom Agosti set the record straight. “We are allowing Canadian horses to be sent down to American trainers and stay here and race,” he told HRU. “We’re not letting people ship in and out, because Canada is locked down and we don’t want people coming in and out of here, just for the health and safety of everybody here.”

Buffalo Raceway has been operating with essential staff only, and not open to the general public. Agosti said he’s sympathetic to the situation of Ontario horsepeople, but his track cannot allow them to relocate there.

“Once the government up there put everybody on lockdown, we can’t say, ‘Oh well, come on over here,’ because if somebody from there comes over here and gets somebody here sick… Oh boy. It has nothing to do with the people. We’ve always let Canadians come down here and race, no problem. But not during this.”

In the past, some Ontario horsemen have shipped in to race, then left Buffalo immediately afterward. Not anymore. “Correct,” confirmed the race secretary. “Guys from Flamboro and stuff. I mean, not as much as before; the Canadian horses have really gotten cut down the past couple of years. Very few have been coming down to race, but they were welcome to come. We didn’t have any problem with them coming, but now that this [Canada-U.S. border closure and Ontario lockdown] has hit, we’ve put a ‘whoa, Nelly’ on that stuff.”

Agosti warned that people intending to race horses and then head back across the border are not allowed at Buffalo Raceway. “We will check, you know. We’re not going to let you sneak them in, back and forth, back and forth,” he advised. “It has nothing to do with Canadians. It’s just with them in a lockdown up there, we are on high alert. We’ve been trying to keep this [COVID-19] out of here for a year now. That’s all it is. We’re just trying to keep our own guys safe. We just don’t want an outbreak at our track. That’s all it comes down to.”

SIMILAR STORY AT SARATOGA

Saratoga Harness is another New York State track where Ontarians have been looking to enter horses since the lockdown. Amy Gentile, racing department administrative assistant, was able to answer questions about who is and isn’t permitted on the grounds. “We are accepting horses, but not the people,” she said. Race secretary P.J. Iovino was in a meeting, so Gentile provided clarification for Canadians. “Actually, I was just looking at the [program] proof and there are horses that were racing at Rideau Carleton. This particular trainer said her owners wanted to send their horses to the states so they could race. [Iovino] said ‘I will accept horses, but they have to go to a local trainer.’ It’s not great for the trainer in Canada, but at least the owners aren’t completely [without racing options], and I’m sure they’ll bring the horses back as soon as they can.”

Saratoga is currently racing three afternoons a week (Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday), without spectators in attendance. “Here, the owners have been able to come, with a reservation, to watch their horses race,” said Gentile. “We’re hoping that it changes and we can have spectators soon. Per our own gaming commission, we’re not allowed to have spectators. We’re waiting. They opened up event, entertainment and art venues, and this is a sporting venue. We also have a casino that’s allowed to open at 25 percent capacity, but they said racetracks are different, and they haven’t had anything else to say. Everybody thinks they’re waiting for Belmont to open before we let fans in. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what the rumour is.”

The presence of trackside spectators may not matter to Ontarians looking to enter a horse, yet it would indicate a further easing of restrictions in New York State, as more residents are vaccinated and its COVID-19 numbers become more manageable. There’s no ban on Canadian horses, nor race conditions written to keep them out of Saratoga Harness, confirmed Gentile. She said that there was likely a misunderstanding when someone contacted the race office:“It could have been that the trainer from Canada called and said, ‘Can I enter my horses?’ and was told no, because we’re not taking the people.”

Gentile recommended that Canadians looking to race their horses at Saratoga make arrangements with locally-based trainers. “You can send your horses to somebody that’s here; there are a lot of farms. You can absolutely contact the race office. […] Somebody might already have an idea of who they want to put the horse with, but maybe not have the phone number, so we can help with that. If they’re interested in racing at Saratoga, they can contact the race secretary.” (The race office direct line is (518) 581-5860.)

Currently, Clements has four overnight horses, two on each side of the U.S.-Canada border. Their situations are markedly different: PL Notorious finished fifth at Yonkers Wednesday night, and Mall Peen Hammer was fifth at Monticello Thursday afternoon.

“Yeah, I’m glad I sent those two down,” he told HRU. “I claimed two more horses the week before the shutdown [J S Perfect Cache and Racebytheseaside] and got stuck with those ones up here, but at least I have something going, or it would be twice as bad as it is currently. I know that everyone’s in an impossible spot. It’s a total guessing game, trying to decide, ‘Do I wait or do I send horses down south?’ There’s no guarantee, because we don’t know if we’re going to be racing in a month, or if we’re not going to be racing for the rest of the year.”

J S Perfect Cache and Racebytheseaside remain in training with Dorchester, ON trainer/driver Lorne House, for now. “The decision is made on a weekly basis, but our temporary decision is to keep both horses in active training so that they’re ready to be entered the day that the box opens” at Western Fair, where the two were claimed, said Clements. “The best move is to just keep them ready, so basically I’m not reducing costs at all. They’re going to be in the same training they would be if the racetracks were opened. That might change if a month goes by and it looks like we’re still not going to open for a couple of months.”

Buffalo is now racing twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday evenings, with most horses coming from its own backstretch.

“We’ve got farms around here that horses are stabled at and then they come here, but it’s basically our guys that are here. They race, they stay here; they don’t go to the farm,” said Agosti. “We’ve got a list of people that are allowed on the grounds, and that’s it.”

Canadians can reach out to locally-based trainers if they want to enter horses at the Hamburg, NY track, he said. “Most of the guys up there know people down here, and if they called and said, ‘Look, I’m going to send four horses to this guy,’ whoever it may be, they are more than welcome to send four horses down here to anybody and they can race them here, no problem. But they can’t come.” He noted that a new text message from the race office was sent out April 8, informing owners and trainers that unaccompanied horses were welcome from anywhere.

Agosti said that he understood why Canadians were dismayed by the controversial race office text message, which was coincidentally sent out on April Fools’ Day. “What happened was, the Ontario government put out something saying there was a lockdown, so our general manager said, ‘We don’t want anybody coming from there.’ Then we got talking a couple of days ago: You know, the horses don’t have the disease — it’s the people. The more he got to thinking, he said, ‘That’s right, you’re right, so we’ll let the horses come, but they’ve got to get permission.’ To say they can’t come is incorrect. They are allowed to come as long as the trainer from here comes in, checks with me, and we clear it all.”

Whoever delivers the horses from Canada to Buffalo Raceway must be prepared to follow the strict rules to keep the backstretch COVID-19-free. The race secretary noted that they “will probably have to park outside the gate. The trainer will have to go get [the horses], walk out and walk them in, because we don’t want anybody on the grounds.” The raceway’s ABCD classification system does not have any conditions added to restrict Canadian entries, he added. He doesn’t want Ontario horse owners or trainers to feel shut out, because the policies aren’t in place to eliminate competition from outside horses: “We’ll take anybody right now! We’re only going two days a week, and barely getting the 12 races a day, so it’s not like we’re flooded with horses.

“Buffalo Raceway has always welcomed Canadian trainers here, always. Unfortunately, we’re at a time right now where we can’t, not because they’re Canadian trainers, but just because we can’t right now because of the epidemic. We’ve got to protect everybody’s health on the grounds–that’s our main concern. Once this is all over, of course they’ll be racing in Canada and they won’t come anyway, but they will be more than welcome.”

Locals must also abide by strict rules in order to race at Buffalo. “We only allow the trainer and one groom per horse. No two grooms for a horse, or just people hanging out–that’s out of the question,” explained Agosti. “We’re trying to limit, as best we can, crowds and everything. Everybody’s got to wear a mask the entire time they’re here. Honestly, we’ve sacrificed races to do it, because we’ve limited horses and people coming in, and, realistically, we actually hurt ourselves business-wise to do it, but for the protection of the people, we had to do what we had to do.”

Clements is watching and waiting, trying to make the best decision about where to race or train his two Ontario-based overnight horses. They might go to Tioga Downs, when that New York State track opens, but he knows that if they go, they won’t be returning to Ontario.

“Just like Mall Peen Hammer and PL Notorious, when they get on that truck and leave, they’re not coming home,” he said. “Stakes horses and stuff will go back and forth, but for horses of this value, it just doesn’t make any sense, because you’re paying a good percentage of the cost of the horse just to put them on the truck one-way.”

Ontario’s loss is New York’s gain, or the gain of any state where the horses of the lockdown can get back to work.

“Even though you’d be bringing in a few new horses, you could actually be growing the sport in your state by using this opportunity,” explained Clements. “I know a lot of people bet on and tune in to these tracks, when they might otherwise not, because we don’t have any racing up here. If my horse is racing at Monticello, I’m watching a track that I normally would never watch.” And fuller fields mean more wagering.

His observation is similar to one made by Tom Agosti. “We had a nice handle last night,” said the Buffalo race secretary. “Over $330,000 last night [April 7]. We’re doing okay. It’s nice to have people up here, but we’re surviving anyway. We’re just doing the best we can.”

At Buffalo, the welcome mat is out, but it’s horses-only for the time being. “Especially for our upper classes,” said Agosti. “We’re going with fives and sixes all the time. We could use them. The horses are more than welcome. The people are just going to have to wait.” (If interested in entering horses at Buffalo Raceway, the race office can be reached at (716) 649-1280, extensions 6234,6235,6236.)

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