The longer that horse racing in Ontario remains in lockdown, the more serious become issues of animal welfare.
Racehorses are allowed to train under Ontario’s strict lockdown but – unlike almost all other jurisdictions in the United States and even in other Canadian provinces – they are not allowed to race. The province realizes that horses need care. But how to pay for it if horsemen cannot race and earn money?
“I’ve got friends that aren’t sure how they’re going to pay for the feed this week,” said Jody Jamieson, a 3-time harness racing Driver of the Year in Canada. “They don’t have an opportunity to make a living, and when I say living, I mean to provide for their animals. And when they can’t do that, then it’s catastrophic.”
At this point – right now – every day counts. Jamieson figures about half of harness horsemen have sold some of their horses to pay for feed and hay for the rest – and he thinks that estimate is conservative. He has done the same, now down to three from 10. Many don’t have horses that are competitive in the United States, so shipping south isn’t an option. Besides it’s outrageously expensive to do so. Jamieson said the situation is so dire that some owners/trainers in the industry are asking others for cash handouts to feed their horses. The situation is desperate.
“It’s as scary as I’ve ever seen it,” Jamieson said. “I can’t even believe it’s come to this.”
One trainer used the word “euthanasia,” but saying the word is like sticking a sword in a horsemen’s heart.
Jamieson is annoyed while Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau trade barbs about managing the pandemic, booting around a red herring such as border shutdowns. “That’s not helping anybody,” Jamieson said. “Horses are literally starving to death while these two guys bicker about politics.”
There are many horsemen that will not be able to survive another three weeks, to the end of the current lockdown that may (or may not) end on June 2. “I fear for our horses,” Jamieson said.
All of this despite the fact that racing in Ontario hasn’t delivered one positive test for COVID-19 from standardbred track environs, Jamieson said. “Not one scare. Not one positive. Not exposure. Not anything, because the protocols are so stringent at every racetrack in Ontario. And we’re all outside. We’re working in open-air areas. We’re working with animals.”
Thoroughbred trainer Steven Chircop says it’s become a tough mental grind to get through these lockdowns. “I think for me, the toughest part is that I feel like the whole Woodbine thing is politics, because it makes absolutely no sense in my mind that we’re able to go there and train every day and not race. That’s the part I find very difficult.”
There may be 1,200 horses on the backstretch, which is allowed to function with strict protocols. On race day, on the frontside of the track, there may be only 100 horses involved in a race program.
And horses at this time of year are getting fit. And getting antsy with no racing to release the energy. “They are getting so antsy, they want to do stupid things,” Chircop said. “And they’re surrounded by a bunch of other horses who are in the same position. It takes one horse to set off the next horse.” Trainers worry about having to break news to owners about horses getting injured – for lack of racing.
Chircop feels for other trainers, who may face owners that will tell them just to take the horse because they are not going to be able to pay the bills. The onus falls on the trainer, who is responsible for paying stable help and making sure horses have feed and hay and straw. And none of these are cheap right now.
“The average person has this perception that all racehorse owners are rich, which is far from the case,” Chircop said. “Woodbine is not that way, for a big part of it.” While wealthy stables have or are currently getting out of the sport, the average owner is the ‘9 to 5’” guy, he said.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob McIntosh, a harness trainer, was on a roll at the beginning of the season, pre-lockdown, with a lofty average of .400 and a win percentage of 28.6 per cent with 10 wins in 35 starts in Canada. Then lockdown happened on April 2. He trains 36 horses right now – down from the 100 he’s been known to handle – and no money is coming in.
“I’m feeling the burn here for sure,” he said. “I’m just basically starving to death.
“My horses had been racing great, and all of a sudden I’m more or less treading water with them, and nobody knows what’s around the next bend,” he said. “That’s a terrible part of it.”
McIntosh owns at least a part of every horse that he trains, meaning he has to foot a tremendous bill for expenses. “This has cut off my livelihood and I’ve still got to feed them and I still have a payroll each week,” he said. “I’m very, very upset.”
He says he’s had to dig into his “whole financial well-being” to pay the bills. He’s 68 years old and very stressed. “It’s costing me at my age this kind of money…I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d be in this situation,” he said. MacIntosh is a seven-time leading trainer in Canada and is a member of horse racing halls of fame in both Canada and the United States. He has trained some of the stars of the sport.
He cannot understand why racing, with no spectators – the case last season – could not resume. After all, the COVID-19 pandemic in Alberta is showing higher per capita infections than Ontario. And today (Sunday), harness racing will start up in Alberta, carefully, all under a bubble.
Most other tracks in Canada are up and running, too. Hastings Park in Vancouver has been going for a week. So has a harness track in Trois-Rivieres, Que. Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Man., will start up May 24. All around North America, more than 60 tracks are in operation. Punters, even in Canada, may bet money remotely at them, which is to say, Canadian money is going south. There is no money from the United States going the other way, into Ontario tracks, which are all closed.
McIntosh said he does not want to move his horses to the United States to race. First of all, it costs $2,000 to ship a horse, he said. And if you ship six at once in the same truck, you don’t get a break: the bill is $12,000. “The trucking companies have got their horns out,” he said. “They know they’ve got you over a barrel. They are making money out of our hardship.”
Still racing south of the border is tempting him so much that he had Coggins tests taken on his horses last week; those are tests required to move horses into different jurisdictions. It means he’s ready to go. “I might do that,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much sleep I lose at night. There’s just no good news coming down the pike.”
And if horsemen do go south, it’s likely that they will stay three or four months, and not a couple of weeks, should Ontario tracks open up. You can’t leave your safe harbor in the United States high and dry by returning home.
McIntosh is concerned about the mental health of his peers, of anybody in Ontario in lockdown, of himself. He hears stories of growing numbers of suicides. “The mental pressure it’s putting on people is just not fair,” he said.
“I feel like I’m slowly bleeding to death. I thought we’d be back racing by now. I wish the government would step up and make things right again.”
Thoroughbred trainer John LeBlanc Jr. says he’s at his wit’s end. “Last year hurt and then again this year,” he said. “It’s still hard to care for these horses that we have and we don’t have any income yet, really.”
He has seven horses at Woodbine and 22 at home on his farm. His wife, Maggie, was a co-founder of the LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society, which finds homes for racehorses after their life on the track is over. They have a field full of retirees that they must feed. “We can’t just shut down,” he said. “That’s animal neglect. We can’t just euthanize a horse, either. That hurts me, more than anything, to do that, especially with a horse that’s fine. That’s why we have 20 horses on the farm.”
He and his wife try to find good homes for them, and are diligent about making sure they will be well cared for in their new homes. A couple of the horses they have, like stakes winner, Bug’s Boy, will always have a home with them: he helped pay for the farm. “They’ve been very good to us,” he said.
Maggie loses sleep and it weighs on LeBlanc Jr., too. He has to work because he can’t pay anybody. His son, Douglas, would help, but he’s recovering from an injury. Douglas graduated last June with a diploma as an aircraft mechanic, but try to find a job in that field right now.
Yes, there are other businesses in Ontario that are suffering gravely from lockdowns, and bankruptcies, too. But horse racing is a business unlike any other. Horsemen still have to feed horses and care for them. You can’t just put them on mothballs, or send them back to place of purchase. “There is no where else for the horses to go,” LeBlanc Jr. said. “It’s a really humane thing that we have to do. We have to take care of them.”
He said he might go hungry before his horses do.
He, like other horsemen, has to wrestle with mounting feed bills. The price of hay climbed last year, because of climate conditions: too wet or too dry at the wrong times of the year. While it used to cost him $85 to buy a large round bale of hay, it now costs $100. The small square bales of hay that you see on a racetrack backstretch cost $10 a pop. A horse can eat at least half a bale of hay a day. Five horses can munch up a large round bale in five days.
So think about what it costs, just for the folk on the backstretch of Woodbine, just for the last three months since the track opened for training. With about 1,200 horse on the backstretch, eating for three months, the bill comes to $540,000. And that’s just hay. Not feed, up in price, too. Where is the money coming from to pay for it?
LeBlanc says there’s another issue: It’s getting hard to find hay. Many farmers have sold all their hay supplies for big bucks to the United States, which has a shortage of hay. “And we’re carrying all of that, as well, trying to live ourselves,” LeBlanc said. “And gas prices are going up again. That touches feed as well, because you have to transport it. Everything starts to get effected. There is a big snowball effect.”
At this time of year, LeBlanc’s store of hay is getting used up. He’s going to have to find more. “We’re really scrambling,” he said. “There will be some people not being able to find hay.” All of this puts pressure on the price of hay, and the imperiled future of horses in the province. And the future of the people who care for them.
“And then the owners get upset, because they’re paying out money,” he said. “Clients get upset about paying and paying and there’s no racing.” They want to move horses to the United States, but LeBlanc Jr. can’t go, because he has a farm to run.
Trainer Mike De Paulo and wife Josie are in the same boat. “We just came off 2 ½ months in the winter with nothing coming in, only to come and spend all this time, and not having any money coming in all this time as well,” Josie said. They have 45 horses at Woodbine, with an employee payroll of almost $17,000 a week.
“If it wasn’t for a large line of credit, we would have nothing, absolutely nothing,” Josie said. “We come to work, both of us, every day and lose money.” Many others do not have even a line of credit.
If Woodbine doesn’t open soon, the De Paulos will head to the United States with about 10 horses. They also are concerned about the loss of the horse population at Woodbine. U.S. trainers are calling Canadian owners and offering to take their horses “because they can race and we can’t,” Josie said. (Woodbine has been paying $1,150 a month per horse to stay on the backstretch, and probably because of it, the horse population has actually swelled to 1,586 at the moment, up by about 100 since May 1. Still, they sit idle, in a holding pattern.)
The one bright spot is that Woodbine has come out with a conditioned book (for races) starting June 5. ) “With no condition book, you have no hope,” Mike said. “You have no idea where you’re going.”
“I swear to god, when they announced that the condition book was coming out, it was like Christmas on the backstretch,” Chircop said. “Everybody was all excited. But at the end of the day, that condition book is great to hold people on, but it doesn’t really mean anything, without the government. I might be wrong, but I feel like we are in the same position today that we were in when we shut down in November. And we’ve made no progress with the government from November until now. So how much hope does that really give me?”
Chircop has 26 horses, and owns six or seven of them himself. In recent years, Woodbine adopted a claiming incentive program to help increase the horse population, and Chircop has been trying to take advantage of it every year. While in the United States over the winter, he bought a couple of horses out of claiming races for himself, and another one for a client. He brought them back to Woodbine, where they now sit idle.
It’s “absolutely tough,” to pay the bills, Chircop said. “The problem is that the price of commodities has gone up. Feed has gone up. Straw has gone up. What are you supposed to do: go to your owners and say: ‘I’ve got to raise my day rate at a time when guys are just holding on by a straw?’”
It’s a particularly hard scramble for trainers, who are juggling it all. Chircop said it’s become more mentally tough to deal with even than it was last year. “Last year, the virus came and it was something new, something unknown,” he said. “Everybody was scared. Now we know a lot more about the virus and you see people in the States, a country that is an hour and a half away from here and it’s a whole different world.”
He said he’s luckier than most. He has solid clients who have been understanding so far. “But I can promise you one thing, there is going to be a lot of trainers who are not going to be getting paid, because owners..are going to want to feed their own families.”
So Chircop undoubtedly has sleepless nights. “This makes no sense any more,” he said. “Nobody knows what to do anymore.”
The clock is ticking on a business of 25,000 people, and on the lives of its horses.