Callie Rankin was a little boy in Cape Breton when the horse-training bug bit him.
By age seven, he was waking at the crack of dawn to clean the stalls of his father's horse barn. He'd go to school, come home and work again, happy to spend time amongst the large, gentle beasts.
Rankin's three-year-old grandson shows the same symptoms now.
“By 5 o'clock he's in here, pretty near every day,” said the 62-year-old horseman, who owns Rankin Stables on Sydenham Road near Dundas.
These days, Rankin worries about the industry lasting long enough for his grandson to own his own farm. In fact, he worries that it won't last beyond six weeks.
Rankin is one of hundreds of horse owners whose livelihood depends on Flamboro Downs. He'll join members of the Ontario Harness Horse Association at city hall Thursday as councillors are expected to pass a motion saying Flamborough is the preferred site for an Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) casino.
The association has as many as 1,000 local members, general manager Brian Tropea said.
Even with a casino in Flamborough, without revenue sharing with the gaming sector, the future of Rankin's livelihood is in jeopardy. Last March, the province cancelled its Slots at Racetracks program, taking away slot revenue used for winning purses at tracks. The OLG's lease for 801 slots at Flamborough Downs ends on March 31.
If racing ends in Flamborough, it would mean the end of a lifestyle that touches every branch of Rankin's family tree.
His father Donald had horses. Nearly all seven of his siblings have horses.
In a 1987 article in Cape Breton magazine called “The Rankins Continue,” his sister Darlene was asked how she became a horse driver. “It's hard not to when you're a Rankin,” she replied.
Rankin moved to Ontario nearly 30 years ago in search of more purse money, which would mean “a better life for my family,” he said.
His wife, Brenda, helps run the family business, as do their four daughters. His son-in-law is a blacksmith and also relies on the industry for his living.
“I don't know what I'd do if I had to wake up in the morning and they weren't there,” Rankin said of his horses.
His day begins around 6 a.m. when he heads out to the barn to feed the horses and clean the stables. Around noon, he jogs each of them on the track behind his barn. Rankin works the rest of the afternoon, feeding them again at 5 p.m.
On race nights, he warms them up and loads them into a trailer for the short drive to Flamboro Downs, where he gathers in a barn with as many as 80 other horse owners. He knows all of them, but they're all too busy to be social. They're preparing for that explosive two minutes when their horses take to the track, and hours of time and money can come to fruition.
It's usually 10 or 11 p.m. by the time he eats dinner, which is just in time for bed. In this industry, “you start when it's dark and you finish when it's dark,” he said.
But the horses make it worth it. He knows the names and personality traits of every one, including Brawn Seelster, who has been Rankin's horse for eight years.
“As soon as I open the door at the house, he starts whinnying for me,” Rankin said.
Brawn Seelster is nearing the end of his career — “he's a good horse, but like us, he's slipping.”
Rankin always thought he'd keep him as a pet after he retired him. He's not so sure anymore, with racetracks facing an uncertain future.
Rankin first heard whispers early last year of the province ending the Slots at Racetracks program. But he didn't fully believe it.
“I said, 'They can't. Why would they ever want to change this?' The government gets 75 per cent (of the proceeds) and it doesn't even have to do anything,” he said. “I still can't believe what they're doing.”
Rankin knows of families suffering steep financial losses. “Most horse people put their life earnings into it,” he said.
Some are getting rid of their horses any way they can. Some sell them to owners in the U.S. or to the Amish, or give them to adoption farms. Others send them to Kitchener to be sold for meat, which Rankin can't do.
“I don't take them there. I don't,” he said. “If I have to give them away, I will, if somebody wants one as a pet. There's a lot of people getting rid of them. It scares me.”
He doesn't know what he'll do after March. He's a little too old to start over in another location, he said. Without the income from racetracks, he can't afford to keep the horses, even Brawn Seelster.
Rankin always planned to leave the stables to his daughter — to carry on the Rankin horse legacy to his grandson and beyond. He never planned to sell.
“I don't know what to do, to be honest with you,” he said. “I'm not looking forward to the day that I have to get rid of it all. It's pretty hard to sell your life, to walk out of the house and look at the barn and that's it.”