Woodbine Entertainment to kick off both harness, thoroughbred cards this weekend

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. Horse-racing has another glorious opportunity to take centre stage on the Canadian sports landscape with the pro ranks still suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

TORONTO - Horse-racing has another opportunity to take centre stage on the Canadian sports landscape with the pro ranks still suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harness racing resumes Friday night at Woodbine Mohawk Park in Campbellville, Ont., following an 78-day hiatus. Horses ran there until March before action was suspended due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

But this weekend will feature consecutive 10-race cards (Friday-Saturday).

The pandemic also forced the postponement of the April 18 opening of the thoroughbred card at Woodbine Racetrack. Racing finally begins there Saturday with an 11-race program featuring 118 entries.

Racing at both venues will be minus spectators, with essential personnel adhering to strict health-and-safety protocols.

"It's hugely gratifying on three levels," Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson said. "Firstly, for me, it's about the people who're so passionate and hard-working and love the sport but have been through a difficult time without any revenue coming in.

"It's also gratifying given the hard work our team has done in helping me make a case with the government that horse racing can be run safely. It's been a lot of work to show this is a sport we can actually do, do it safely and generate revenue. We took the best of the best in terms of safety.

"What also made us very credible was what we managed to accomplish on the Woodbine backstretch, where we've operated an extremely safe environment for the last three months. So, yes, it's very gratifying."

Live horse racing will mark the first sporting action in Toronto since March 10, when the Maple Leafs edged the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 at Scotiabank Arena.

But Woodbine isn't the first track in Canada to offer live thoroughbred racing. Winnipeg's Assiniboia Downs achieved that honour May 25, registering a $1.067 million opening-night handle, more than double the norm, without spectators.

Fort Erie Racetrack opened its racing card Tuesday, generating $2.09 million in wagering. That's up 70 per cent over last year's opening day and was second only to the $2.18 million generated at the '16 Prince of Wales Stakes, the second jewel of Canada's Triple Crown.

American Mark Casse, named Canada's top trainer an unprecedented 12 times, reiterated he's most happy for those Woodbine owners/trainers who've not raced horses since December.

"It's been a strange 2020 for everybody," he said. "I feel a lot of sympathy for Canadian owners and trainers.

"It's good for us . . . we point so many of our horses to Woodbine. I'd say 50 per cent of the horses we have we give them the winter off and point them there so its been a delayed re-opening."

But as excited as Lawson is for the opening weekend, he admits there's also been a heavy weight on Woodbine's shoulders.

"I think there definitely is," he said. "I've sent a 35-page manual to the Minister of Sport and various levels of government, including the Premier, and we did that, in part, to show how seriously we've taken this.

"We've worked so hard to develop this and make our case that we deserve to be in the re-opening of the province, we deserve to have a chance. Now we need to perform."

Should there be a positive COVID-19 test at either Woodbine facility, the individual will immediately be placed in a 14-day isolation. Afterwards, that person would only be allowed back if symptom-free and with negative test results.

Once informed of the positive test, Woodbine's COVID-19 health and safety committee would immediately begin contact tracing to inform anyone who'd been in close proximity of the individual in question. It would also determine what areas the person had been in so they could be appropriately cleaned and disinfected.

The committee would also attempt to determine where the person might've originally been exposed to the virus and was following Woodbine's mandatory protocol of wearing a facemask. The committee regularly consults with a medical physician and includes a board member with an extensive background in the medical field.

Even without spectators, Lawson expects the atmosphere at both tracks to be electric.

"Absolutely, I feel bad for our owners, wagering customers and fans in general," Lawson said. "It's disappointing to me we can't let those people enjoy what they like to do.

"But having said that even with no one there, there will be a buzz in the air. People have been desperately waiting for this for so long . . . there might even be excitement from the horses."

Trainer Robert Tiller enters action needing just two wins to reach 2,000 for this career. Tiller is also a three-time Sovereign winner as Canada's top conditioner (2001, 2003-04) and was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2008.

Even after 54 years in the game, the 70-year-old Tiller has no intention of slowing down.

"Most people my age are enjoying their retirement, or they’re in a rocking chair," he said. "Or maybe they aren’t enjoying their retirement at all.

"But I'm still here and I have a lot of horses to take care of. I've been lucky in many ways. I've met a lot of great people, had a lot of great years, had a lot of great owners, and a lot of great horses."

And with the grandstands empty, Lawson said there'll be no commemorative opening at either track.

"The first thing that comes to mind for me is our own workers who've gone above and beyond during this period," Lawson said. "Also the hospital workers, nurses, doctors and front-line workers who've gone above and beyond as well.

"We'll honour those people the best way we can at the appropriate time."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2020.

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