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Racing to resume at Grand River Raceway

Grand River Raceway’s Katie Giddy. [Damon Maclean]

And they’re off … even if nobody’s there to see ‘em.

When harness racing resumes next week at Grand River Raceway, the grandstand will be empty, the action viewable only via a live-stream broadcast.

“Starting June 5, we will be going forward with our regular race schedule, [unfortunately] we have to leave our spectators at home,” said Katie Giddy, the Elora venue’s director of hospitality, sales and marketing.

It’s an arrangement that will apply to races for the foreseeable future, and one that has been used by other sports organizations looking to resume action. Some have even used cardboard cutouts and mannequins in place of the fans who’d normally fill the stands.

In resuming races, Grand River Raceway is working with advice from the government and race body to ensure protocols and standards are being kept and maintained throughout the season. Along with empty seats, the new guidelines set out a limited number of people in the barn, a limited number of horses on the track at a time, an empty casino room, and the continued closure of food and beverage stands.

Riders will be required to physically distance and sanitize to ensure their safety.

As far as the specifics, they will be built and put in place over the next week,” said Giddy.

In reintroducing races, Grand River can draw on the experience of venues such as Woodbine and Mohawk, which have already seen racing resume for broadcast.

The track in Elora will be back in action for qualifying races on June 3 ahead of official events two days later. The live broadcasting will begin with the qualifiers, and there will be more options for viewers to watch from home, said Giddy.

“If you want to watch, you can do that through our Facebook page, YouTube channel and on the website, there is both standard definition and high definition.” The organization is also looking into investing in new technology so that “watching from home is almost as exciting as being here,” she added.

Gambling remains on the table, through HPI bet. Anyone of the legal age can register online.

Grand River Raceway has yet to get a handle on how many people may tune in for the racing, though unlike the venue itself, the Internet has no maximum capacity. It’s also difficult to gauge the reactions of fans, riders and people that are only looking for something else to watch other than their Netflix, Giddy said.

“For those that are very diligent hardcore race fans, I think they will be very excited just to see horses racing again.”

Along with changes to its racing program, the raceway’s adaptation to the coronavirus situation is being reflected in its grants and support for community groups. Currently, the agricultural society board is looking at ways be helpful in the community and to thank frontline workers. The Healthy Hungry Heroes program, for instance, grew out of the decision to purchase some $25,000 worth of gift cards from local restaurants and provide them to frontline workers. The value of the project evolved into approximately $35,000 through personal donations as well.

“There was a lot of fantastic pass it forward; paramedics chose to say ‘thank you’ but pass it forward to the food bank,” said Giddy.

While racing is strictly a view-from-home option just now, the organization is looking forward to an eventual return to something more like normal.

“We are sorry that it is at-home for now, but when the time is right, the doors will be open again.”

When those doors open, the establishment may look a little different, as the raceway is undergoing construction initially delayed due to COVID-19 measures and protocols. With an investment of $6 million, the operation is changing its event space, expanding it to be able to host 300 people in its first room as well as a secondary room for 100 people, and a corporate board room. A new lounge area is also being created, the new location for broadcast races around the world. Initially, the project was supposed to be completed in July; however, it has been pushed back to late-summer or fall, depending on provincial orders related to the coronavirus response.

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