Ian Howard stands at the rail of Woodbine’s training track, binoculars in one hand, stopwatch in the other. The tools of his trade. Under a baseball cap, the trainer’s face is sunburned, his eyes focused on a speck up the track, thundering toward him.
Maybe this horse is the one. Maybe not. Skyrish is three years old, a handsome bay colt who won his first race but was pipped at the post in his second. That he’s here at all is a bit of a miracle: Last year, Skyrish broke his pelvis and spent five months in his stall recovering. Thoroughbreds are funny that way, like locomotives balanced on drinking straws. One wrong step and phfft – thousands of dollars and somebody’s dream down the drain, and a horse’s life destroyed.
It’s tempting to see Skyrish as a symbol for the entire North American horse-racing industry: hobbled, nearly broken, desperate for a comeback. In Europe, Australia and parts of Asia, racing continues to flourish, but on this continent – especially in Ontario, the heart of Canadian industry – the sport of kings is beggared.
“I almost packed it in last year,” says Howard, 54, when Skyrish has finished his workout.
The bottom fell out of the Ontario racing industry when the provincial government yanked the money-making slots machines at racetracks program. Since 1998, slot players at tracks like Woodbine had subsidized horse racing, allowing it to grow fat and, most people agree, complacent. But pulling the plug was a sudden and devastating blow for people who race thoroughbreds, and much worse for those who breed standardbreds (the harness horses that make up most of the racing in Canada).
Yet, Howard is still here, because horse racing is famously a sport in which rational behaviour runs a distant second to love and hope. Love of horses and hope that one of them, some day, might win. “There’s always that next horse,” he says. “The one you’re excited about.”
He trudges back to the barn where his 11 horses are stabled. He started here as a groom, when he was 15. On the backstretch of Canada’s largest and most famous racetrack, located on the northwestern edge of Toronto, there is little glamour, only rubber boots and a lot of manure. The exercise boys and grooms heckle each other in a variety of languages and accents. These are some of the jobs – estimated by the racing industry at 30,000 in Ontario alone – that will be lost if the industry disintegrates.
At the side of the barn, Howard waves to Ken Katyran, a 30-year-old owner-trainer who’s bathing his chestnut filly, Stormy Voyage. “It is tough these days,” Katyran says. When he was 12 he started taking the bus to the track after school to work with his uncle, Abraham, also a trainer. He’s thought about moving his small racing operation to New York, but he has not contemplated finding a job that is, if you’ll pardon the pun, more stable. “I love it too much,” he says. “I love the horses.”
On Sunday, with the running of the 154th Queen’s Plate at Woodbine, the spotlight will briefly turn to horse racing, a sport that is overlooked for the rest of the year, except for the diehard fans who love it and bettors who can’t get their kicks elsewhere. Howard looks up at the grandstand looming behind him. “I saw Secretariat race here,” he says. “The stands were full. It was electric.”
Oct. 28, 1973. A sleeting, bitter day at Woodbine. The stands were indeed full for the Canadian International Stakes, with women in fur coats and men smoking cigars. In his final race, the incomparable Secretariat pulled away from the field like a jet in the company of biplanes.
When people who love racing get together, this is invariably the way conversation turns: I saw Secretariat run. I saw Seattle Slew, Glorious Song, Zenyatta, Cigar. Once you’ve been there, you know that nothing compares to the thrill of standing a few yards from a dozen thousand-pound animals straining to get their noses over the finish line.
In the 1930s, Seabiscuit drew a depressed nation together; in the 1960s, Northern Dancer was Canada’s darling, and the world’s; in the 1970s, Alydar and Affirmed pounded each other like Frazier and Ali in the three races of the U.S. Triple Crown and drew thousands of new fans to racetracks.