Larger track opens a world of exciting possibilities for Grand River

The new five-eighths mile track at Grand River Raceway, which officially opened on Wednesday, should provide a better experience for horses, horsepeople and bettors.

by Matthew Lomon

Horsepeople and horseplayers, alike, will be working with more runway this season at Grand River Raceway.

The Western Ontario oval kicked off its first live racing campaign on Wednesday (June 5) as a five-eighths mile oval, following the successful extension of its racing surface.

Prior to this year, Grand River had operated as a half-mile track for the entirety of its 20-plus-year existence.

One of the masterminds behind the extension project, Greg Coon of the heralded Coon racetrack construction and development family, remembers when the raceway at 7445 Wellington County Rd was still in its pre-construction phase.

“Twenty-three or so years ago, there was a veterinarian (the late Grand River founder and Canadian Hall of Famer Dr. Ted Clarke) that called me out of the blue and said, ‘I’m going to build a track in Grand River, and I’d like a blueprint of the Little Brown Jug,’” Coon said.

What at first was the inspiration behind Grand River later became part of its identity. That was in no way lost on Coon and co., who needed to work within the parameters of The Jug’s design to ensure the accuracy of the new dimensions.

“Of course, The Jug has got bigger turns than any other half-mile track and that makes the stretches shorter,” Coon said. “We’ve essentially done the same thing given the property line limits here.

“We’ve gone from a half-mile track that had larger than normal turns and shorter stretches to a five-eighths that’s the same way.”

As Coon reminded, a traditional five-eighths track has a radius of about 300 feet. However, in alignment with the aforementioned property line restrictions, the renowned trackman says Grand River’s five-eighths course features a radius that’s approximately 50 feet bigger.

“A normal half-mile is 230-foot radiuses,” Coon said. “The Jug is 267 feet, so you can see that it had bigger turns, and so does this one we just built.”

With the expansion comes a greater opportunity for Grand River to grow its already impressive live racing meet into one of Canada’s premier harness destinations.

It is something director of equine programming at Western Fair, Greg Blanchard ,envisioned as part of the revamp.

The industry veteran is lending his expertise to his Grand River friends and colleagues this season.

“By expanding to five-eighths, you should be able to attract a higher caliber of horses to race there, which generally translates to handle,” Blanchard said. “And by doing that, I think you’re also going to ensure stronger field size, which is something bettors certainly want. That, along with competitiveness of the field, and a racetrack that plays fair, meaning different trips can win.

“The hope in making the move is that you’re going to have more people that are willing to race, and better younger horses, in particular, on the bigger track, which should trickle down through those other metrics.”

That was certainly true on opening night. Grand River set an opening-day record with $404,071 bet on Wednesday despite less-than-perfect weather.

Coon has also noticed the impact that increased speed figures have had on drawing in top horsepeople to larger tracks.

“Really, and truly, it seems like the horses have gotten so much faster in the last 10 or 20 years,” Coon said. “People are sort of avoiding half-mile tracks with speed horses. But I think they’ll be able to draw some good horses here.”

Just as a pitcher with a 100-mile-per-hour fastball makes the game more exciting, so too does a bigger track with more room for unpredictability.

“I think it’ll be a fast track, for sure,” Blanchard said. “The hope from a fan or customer standpoint is that it’ll be exciting racing and the type of racing where horses can win from almost any type of trip.

“We won’t know that until we watch a couple of programs, but boy, if all of that comes together the way they hope it will, it should be a fantastic product.”

In some circumstances, change can be daunting. But on the racetrack, it can be the catalyst behind a new brand of racing.

As Blanchard put it, that’s a significant bonus for horseplayers.

“The other element that we shouldn’t underestimate for horseplayers is the excitement of change, the excitement of a newly-configured track,” he said. “I think there’s going to be that element as well, that people are going to be watching with added interest. If you factor that into all of the other things, I think it’s a recipe for potential handle growth this season.”

While there’s no denying that both horsepeople and players will need time to adapt to the new settings, Blanchard said he doesn’t believe it will last any longer than a few programs.

Having Coon’s meticulous eye going over every last detail also goes a long way in inspiring confidence among those traversing the new track for the first time.

“I’m getting mostly positive feedback,” Coon said as he surveyed the surface before opening day. “I’d say if I asked 10 people this morning how the track is, one of them said he thought it was just a touch loose and the rest were happy with it.”

Coon watched intently while some 30-plus horses gathered to train on the newly built surface on June 4.

Of the several key items on his checklist, one requires more than just his eagle eye.

“It sounds good when they roar by,” he said. “I’m standing right where they come off the track because I want to hear how it sounds.

“If there’s any fixing to be done, that’s why I’m here.”

It didn’t take long for Grand River’s new crown jewel to undergo its first stress test. In fact, it happened right out of the gate.

Wednesday’s season opener featured a stiff combo of rainfall and 10 qualifiers.

Rain, shine or otherwise, the forecast for a successful new racing strip looks to be a pleasant one for all.

“If you talk to enough horsepeople, they’ll all have a different opinion on what they like to see in a track surface or what they feel is a good track,” Blanchard said. “The fact that it’s been pretty much unanimous so far that people think it’s a good surface and going to be a great track to race on, that’s really positive.”

By going the extra mile, five-eighths, in this instance, Grand River and its racing fans have plenty to look forward to in 2024 and beyond.