Grand River Raceway hopes to resume racing by July

Martin: 'first and foremost we need to protect the safety for the people ... working in there and we will do that'

ELORA – With horse racing shut down in Ontario due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grand River Raceway has no choice but to wait for government go-ahead before starting up for the season.

Jamie Martin, director of operations at the raceway, is hopeful racing can start in late spring or early summer – but it won’t look the same as it has in the past.

“We’re expecting to be open on June 3, but I think we’re probably a couple weeks away from hearing something more definitive,” he said in a phone interview on April 23.

He is hopeful racing will resume sometime in June – if not, July.

However, that doesn’t mean everyone will be able to flood the raceway to enjoy live horse racing.

“We know it would be without spectators so we would just be providing … essential staff on site to conduct the races,” he said.

What those changes look like are not yet clear, as raceways in Ontario wait for guidance from the province.

“It could be a range from taking everybody’s temperature as they enter the restricted area,” Martin indicated, saying the race paddock is “a pretty hectic place on a race night.

“You’ve got 80 horses in there and then people with each horse, so we’re going to have to implement some procedures.”

He added, “We may have to drag the races out so there’s more time between races,” allowing the horses and caregivers time to move in and out of the paddock area while maintaining separation.

The stringent requirements will need to be in place before racing begins, because, “first and foremost we need to protect the safety for the people that are working in there and we will do that,” Martin said.

While the harness racing industry is waiting to start up again, Ontario Racing has made $1,000 a month available in April and May for each eligible horse aged three and up that was in training.

“That’s taking the prize money that would have been paid out in those months and it’s sort of diverting it to all the horse owners and trainers to help them,” Martin explained.

“It doesn’t cover the cost, but to help them maintain their horses in training and help look after them.”

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Though spectators will not be permitted when racing initially starts, betting will still take place.

Many racetracks, like the Grand River Raceway, televise races and bettors will be able to do so remotely.

“And actually, in our case, probably about 50% of the betting on our races actually occurs from the United States,” said Martin.

Racing needs to start up again and get wagering going to help support the prize money and the stables and horses competing, he added.

Another challenge for the Grand River Raceway is a halt in its construction process.

The raceway had begun a $6-million renovation to add a 17,000-square-foot addition to the Lighthouse Restaurant building, doubling the banquet and kitchen space at the raceway and offering additional office space and boardrooms.

The addition was scheduled for completion in June, prior to the start of the racing season, but now Martin is hoping for a an early summer completion.

As for annual traditions like the Weiner Dog races in July and Industry Day in August, Martin said the raceway is waiting to make a decision until more is known.

“We’re just sort of waiting to hear what we’re going to be permitted to do and not permitted to do,” he said.