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Thoroughbred jockey Kazushi Kimura, right, and exercise rider Casie Garcia gallop in preparation for the June 6 opening day without spectators at Woodbine Racetrack.

When it comes to the return of professional sports in Canada, horse racing is first out of the gate. But being first comes with huge opportunity, as well as big responsibility.

Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs was the first to kick off live racing last week. Tracks across Ontario will begin throughout this week, including the start of thoroughbred meets at Niagara’s Fort Erie and Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack, and the resumption of standardbred racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park in Milton, which halted in mid-March because of the pandemic.

The horses will thunder around the ovals with no spectators in the grandstands. Only essential workers are allowed, while they follow very strict rules to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as temperature checks, wearing masks and remaining at least six feet apart. There will be no media attending, nor any huddling of exuberant people in the winner’s circle for photos. Even the racehorse owners must watch online from home on track-produced livestreams.

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Only essential workers are allowed in the grandstands, while they follow very strict rules to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

michael burns photo/Woodbine / michael burns photo

As most other pro sports remain on pause, horse racing hopes to whet the appetites of fans flipping channels and looking to wager. Woodbine Entertainment is in discussions with TSN to get horse racing on prime-time television, hoping it could possibly fill some of the wide-open gaps left by the absence of live sports.

“We have an opportunity here to showcase our sport during this time period and hopefully we can do a good job of getting more people interested,” said Jim Lawson, the chief executive officer of Woodbine Entertainment. “If we are fortunate enough to be on TSN, it will give them an opportunity to broadcast a sport during the pandemic for the first time, figuring out how to do everything safely, from when to wear masks, how to situate camera people and how the hosts interact with one another and produce interesting content.”

The horse-racing industry had to act quickly to add safety protocols back in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before government shutdowns, Woodbine Mohawk Park was one of a few Canadian tracks that operated two nights of live standardbred racing with no fans, and physical-distancing adaptations for the horse people.

The horse-racing industry had to act quickly to add safety protocols back in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Woodbine Racetrack’s backstretch remained open to essential workers during the pandemic to allow for the care of some 1,400 horses who stable there, including their exercise. Those who enter the backstretch are questioned about symptoms every day and have their temperatures checked. Security officers patrol to enforce physical-distancing protocols. Lawson says Woodbine doesn’t currently have the capacity to test people for COVID-19, so it would be up to the individuals to get themselves tested if they experience symptoms.

Jockeys weren’t allowed there until just a few weeks ago, yet they must wait outside the barns for the horses to be brought out to limit the number of people inside. Jockey agents aren’t on the essential-staff list, so they handle draws and other logistics for the jocks virtually from home. Everyone must wear masks or face coverings. Jockeys may pull their masks down when they’re reaching high speeds.

Thoroughbred jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson normally loves to visit a horse in the barn before taking it out to breeze at Woodbine. She usually connects with a horse by blowing gently on its nose to say hello, have a scratch or feed it mints or a carrot.

Thoroughbred jockey Emma Jayne Wilson rides at Woodbine Racetrack. She says she's just thankful to be back on the track, and willing to 'do whatever we need to do' to follow COVID-19 measures.

“We’re trying to limit interactions and the amount of time in close proximity, so I don’t get to do those things any more,” Wilson said. “But I’m not complaining because we’re all just thankful that we have racing again, and we’re willing to do whatever we need to do.”

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Getting horses back to Canada during the pandemic has been very complex for those who race in the United States during the winter months. Toronto thoroughbred trainer Michael De Paulo is just one case – he had 14 horses racing at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla. He chose to stay down there longer than he usually does, since Woodbine’s season wasn’t going to begin as normal on April 18, yet racing continued at Gulfstream, albeit without fans.

De Paulo recently returned to Canada to prepare for Woodbine’s start, and had to quarantine at home for 14 days. Since there is no evidence that horses get infected with or carry COVID-19, they don’t have to quarantine. He sent the horses to Canada via a horse transport service. Horse vans returning from the U.S. have to unload outside the Woodbine backstretch area and are met by local staff to walk horses to barns, then have all their harnesses and equipment disinfected.

Toronto thoroughbred trainer Michael De Paulo recently returned to Canada to prepare for Woodbine’s start, and had to quarantine at home for 14 days.

michael burns photo/Woodbine / michael burns photo

Not having the racehorse owners at the track during the pandemic, watching workouts, visiting horses or celebrating victories is an adjustment.

“One of the great thrills of winning a race is coming out of the winner’s circle and having people congratulate you, seeing your friends and taking a photo where the owner has a huge smile on [their] face, but there’s none of those things right now,” De Paulo said. “A lot of this game is about pride and sportsmanship.”

Some trainers have provided drone video footage of training sessions to help owners feel connected from afar.

Many communal areas at tracks are out of use at the moment, such as the drivers’ room at Mohawk Park, where standardbred drivers relax before exercising or racing a horse. For now those drivers wait in their cars instead until given the go-ahead to go check in with a trainer. These things are becoming the new normal for now.

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Thoroughbred trainer Roger Attfield, right, and exercise rider Alison Walker trot to Woodbine Racetrack.

“So it’ll be different, you know, but we’re just so happy to be back, and whatever protocols are put in place we’ll make them work; we don’t want to screw things up for everybody else,” said Blake MacIntosh, a standardbred trainer at Mohawk Park. “It could be big for people to remember our sport again, and see that we’re good entertainment.”

Lawson said the horse-racing industry provides about 25,000 jobs in Ontario and about 50,000 across Canada. Woodbine Entertainment alone has 2,000 employees – many in food and beverage service – and 90 per cent were laid off in March, while many of those kept on took pay cuts.

Unlike many other pro sports, horse racing doesn’t rely on in-person spectators as its main revenue source. That comes from wagering.

In just three days of racing last week, comprising 18 total races, Assiniboia Downs saw a spike in online wagering – nearly seven times its per-race average from last year for a staggering $4.4-million in total. Though the wagering totals are some of the highest in the history of Assiniboia Downs, the track’s profit margin is a small percentage of that, but still vital dollars for a track unable to make money off live spectators or onsite bettors right now.

Training for standardbred racing at Woodbine Racetrack with rider James MacDonald.

Clive Cohen

Live racing is set to resume in the Atlantic provinces soon, too, and Edmonton.

Remote bettors are already widely using the popular online platform called HPIbet. To coincide with the return of racing, Woodbine Entertainment is launching a new app called Dark Horse, the first legal sports betting app in Canada, something it already had in the works but decided to fast-track in the current climate. By using the app, bettors are able to stream live races on their phones, as well as receive betting insights, and then either play for free or wager with real money.

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As the first sport to return, the following months could provide an opportunity for one of the world’s oldest sports to attract new fans. It just needs to seize the reins.

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