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Ontario horse racing is back on track

Horses took to the track and bettors to the stands as Grand River Raceway opened its doors during stage 2 of Ontario’s reopening plan.

With 11 races planned for the evening of July 2, hundreds of spectators flocked to the stands as horses and their drivers warmed up on the track that they haven’t been on for close to four months.

While Young has been training and racing horses for 55 years, Robert Archer has been watching Young – and other drivers – their whole career from his comfortable seat in the grandstands for the past 66 years.

Since their closure in March, horse racetracks – and participants – have been awaiting the day they can return to the track and continue their passion.

“We’re thrilled to have the horses back on the track and spectators able to watch the live racing action. [It] has been a long time coming,” said Grand River Raceway spokesperson Jenna Knox, Events.

“Everybody’s happy that we’re back racing, because now you have a chance to make money,” explained Robert Young, a driver and horse trainer.

As horses, carts and riders bustled all around him in the Grand River Raceway paddock, Young spoke about what has kept him driving for the past 55 years.

“I’ve been in it my whole life, and I really enjoy it,” said Young. “Buying a young horse at a sale and developing them into a racehorse, that’s what I like doing.”

“I come three times a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” explained Archer. “I feel great. It’s good to be back.”

For many drivers like Young, the fans are a big part of the race. The energy and excitement they bring can be felt by the drivers and their horses as the provincial reopening plan kicks in.

“What’s really going to help us is in the next couple of weeks, when we go to stage 3, we’ll have fans all the time,” said Young. “It makes it more entertaining – to hear the roar of the crowd when the horses [are] racing in, you know, just bring fans back out again.”

“It is a totally different atmosphere,” said Knox. “Being able to have spectators on site and at a bigger capacity definitely ramps up the excitement. The drivers on the track can hear the people cheering for them. It’s just not the same without the spectators there.”

One unique thing about the sport of horse racing is that the tracks are integral for the sports survival. While trainers and drivers can still train their own horses, Knox explains that “racing couldn’t happen without the racetrack.”

“It was tough to see the industry kind of struggling to get through the pandemic, but like all industries that it affected everyone,” Knox continued. “We’re just, happy to be able to open the doors to them again.”

Just like other industries adapting to the lockdown, Grand River Raceway has had to lean on their digital way of conducting business more than ever before. This need has brought forth some positive changes in the way they support spectators remotely.

“There’s certain things like our betting contest, for instance, they all moved online as of last year,” said Knox.

“We probably will go forward with doing that from here on out, it is a bit more streamlined process. And we didn’t really take that into consideration until we had to do it online.”

But while some of the betting becomes digital, there can be no substitute for the roar of the crowd and the pumping of the hooves.

“We are hoping to get back to normal as [quickly] as possible,” said Knox.

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