Kitchener-Waterloo

Harness drivers thankful to be racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park during pandemic

Harness racing continues at Woodbine Mohawk Park despite all other major sports — and even some racetracks — shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But events at the Campbellville, Ont., track are being conducted without fans in the stands.
Drivers and horses head into a turn during harness racing action in the 2008 opening day program at the Charlottetown Driving Park in Charlottetown on Saturday, April 19, 2008. In a time when other sports have shut down, harness driver Doug McNair is thankful to still be working. McNair and other drivers are still racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park but doing so with no fans in the grandstand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, something McNair admits is a peculiar feeling. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Harness driver Doug McNair remains eternally grateful to still be working, even if it's under somewhat bizarre circumstances.

The Guelph, Ont., resident continues to race at Woodbine Mohawk Park despite all other major sports — and even some racetracks — shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But events at the Campbellville, Ont., track are being conducted without fans in the stands.

McNair understands why the measure is in place. But he admits looking into the bare grandstands is surreal and emphatically drives home the point that these are indeed unique times.

"It's not terrible, but it's definitely different," he said. "You look over (to grandstand) and everything is dark. People might say there's no crowds there, especially in the winter, but even if there's 50 to 100 people at Mohawk, it's a lot different having none ... and the casino is empty as well."

And McNair, Canada's top driver in 2018, said it's something he's reminded of daily.

"When you go (to Mohawk), it's funny, you don't see any traffic," he said. "It's absurd, definitely, it's different.

"We're really lucky just to be racing, but things change day today, hour to hour. I just hope it continues."

Some tracks suspend racing

Racetracks across North America have reacted differently to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Kentucky Derby organizers announced Tuesday the first jewel of the U.S. Triple Crown was being shifted from May 2 to Sept. 5 due to COVID-19. But the $1-million Grade 2 Louisiana Derby will run Saturday without spectators in the stands.

Among the American tracks to suspend racing are Yonkers, Dover Downs, Freehold Raceway, The Meadowlands, The Downs at Mohegan Sun, and Pocono. Facilities in Europe, Denmark and Italy have followed suit.

In Canada, Horse Racing Alberta temporarily suspended racing. But Century Downs, in southern Alberta, is holding events without spectators, as are harness tracks in Ontario.

"We've spoken to government officials about Mohawk regarding what we're doing," said Jim Lawson, the chief executive officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group. "We're changing post times as of Friday night to spread out the races.

"We don't want any more than 50 people in the paddock, probably 40 people. We're going to start to use more of the new portion of the paddock to make sure there's more social distancing.

"We're (continuing to race) for horse people more than anything. But we won't hesitate to close down if what I'd call the very strict policies and protocols we have in place aren't working and this thing gets beyond us."

Wagering continues

Empty stands haven't seemed to dampened fan interest. Wagering at Mohawk on Friday and Saturday was up 10 per cent, while Sunday's handle remained steady despite the absence of spectators.

"We have the benefit of a robust and sophisticated system, which is good and it does help bring in some revenue," Lawson said. "The wagering revenue, though, is less than the purse money you pay out to do this.

"Our only mandate as a corporation is to support horse racing and that's what we're doing as best we can. We're effectively not-for-profit mandate ... anything we earn goes back into horse racing."

McNair and fellow driver Jody Jamieson both gave back last week, each donating a night's earnings to the Red Cross. McNair bequeathed $1,350, while Jamieson chipped in with $1,050.

"I figured we were fortunate enough to be racing and what could we do to help a little bit," McNair said. "I definitely think little things like that aren't going to hurt."

Paddock, announcer booth disinfected

Woodbine Entertainment has also implemented temperature screening for all people entering the paddock at both Mohawk Park and Woodbine Racetrack. Although the thoroughbred season doesn't open until April 18, horses are in barns there and, like at Mohawk, require daily attention and care.

At Mohawk Park, both the paddock and announcer's booth are disinfected nightly after racing is completed.

"It's fundamental for these people to exist, to continue to have commerce and a livelihood," Lawson said. "We're prepared to do it on the basis of respecting government direction and protocols.

"But we're not in the business of risks. We moved first and quicker than anyone to shut down our grandstand, to send our employees home, to shut our bars and restaurants immediately off-site. We're closely monitoring this. We have a very strong board that's involved, we're speaking to government officials and trying to help by creating some commerce."

Many living paycheque to paycheque

A fact not lost upon driver Bob McClure, who drove 15/1 pick Forbidden Trade to an upset win in last year's US$1-Hambletonian.

"The biggest fear I have for this whole thing is there's a large majority of this industry that's still living paycheque to paycheque," said the Rockwood, Ont., resident. "And I don't know how they're going to be able to weather this storm if we have to shut down racing.

"I think owners, all of a sudden, are expected to pay the bills without any money coming in. That's more than I'd want asked of me. Trainers having to pay grooms when they're not racing either. The money stops at the top and at some point it's the people at the bottom who need it the most. I really worry about that because there are people who simply can't take weeks off work."

McClure said he's barely noticed the empty Woodbine Mohawk Park grandstands because once a race begins, he's focused entirely on driving. Ditto for the tarmac traffic.

"If this was summer and this was going on, you'd definitely notice," he said.

Racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park is scheduled to resume Thursday night. Both McNair and McClure agree that until told differently, drivers are intent on continuing to work.

"Obviously one day at a time," McNair said. "But I'm happy with what Woodbine is doing and hopefully no one gets sick."

Added McClure: "I think there's going to be a lot of pressure from Health Canada and the government going forward. But obviously we want to race and track officials want to race so long as it's safe."

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