Trainer/driver Anthony MacDonald says he grossly underestimated the costs of fleeing a pandemic at home to ply his livelihood in the United States a few weeks ago. The costs cut deeply. It was all so complicated, too.
Yet the cost of staying in Ontario during lockdown was higher.
“I know everybody keeps saying: ‘Just ride it out. Stay in your house,’” he said from Cleveland, Ohio, where he has rented a townhome. “But the reality of the situation is, people can’t just do that.”
A couple of weeks ago, he took his entire family with him to Ohio: wife Amy, children: Adeline, age 2, Oliver, 7, Ava, 10. He uprooted them. To his surprise, they understood. And coped.
“It’s really astonishing to see,” he said. “You think your kids just don’t know, that they’re oblivious to everything going around, but they understand. They understand why we moved and the importance of moving. And they understand very well how lucky they are to be down here.”
MacDonald just couldn’t survive another year of being away from his family, with another summer of them stuck in Ontario, just like last year, and “doing god knows what,” he said. (Son Oliver made the baseball team in Guelph, but their practices were virtual – run around the block, play catch, do sprints, not under a coach.) “It wasn’t fair to them. I wasn’t going to watch my children lose another summer of their childhood.”
With MacDonald’s exodus to the United States, he has taken with him all that he has achieved over the past six years, from the time he founded TheStable.ca. The native of Prince Edward Island thought forwardly and big, well beyond the hub rail when he came up with that entity, a fractional horse ownership concept that has brought new people into the sport, even if it is to just own 1 per cent of a horse.
He has built this stable into the largest in Canada, attracting his 800th client last year. He has given talks in Australia. He has run for provincial government. In 2019, he won the Cam Fella Award, a recognition of meritorious service to the harness industry in Canada. He has beaten the dust out of all the old sofas in the sport.
Now he’s AWOL. MacDonald moved because his livelihood had ground to a halt with the most recent and never-ending lockdown. He and a host of others driver-trainers just like him, who have left Ontario, too, just don’t understand why.
Yes, Woodbine Racetrack had a rash of positive COVID tests on its backstretch in recent weeks, apparently only a matter of time because it sat squat in the middle of a high-risk zone in northwest Etobicoke.
All of the standardbred tracks in the province have been shut down too. But Mohawk Park near Campbellville, Ont. has no backstretch or barn area at all. Horses that race at Mohawk either come from farms or training centres in rural areas, not hotspots at all. All of the horses gather to race in a track paddock, which had strict COVID protocols.
“I’ll put it to you this way: Ontario is the only jurisdiction in North America that has shut down in the past year more than once,” MacDonald said. “If you look at the data from any other racetrack, in any other jurisdiction on planet earth, you will not find the data that supports shutting down racing.
“I know that the government loves to say they are following the science. It’s a wonderful catch phrase and it sounds great. I just don’t know what science they are following. It just isn’t accurate.”
The same people who work in stables caring for horses – considered essential – are the same people who race the horses. “There were positives at Woodbine, Mohawk,” MacDonald said. “There were positives at Northfield Park [in Ohio], at Scioto Downs [in Ohio]. There were positives in Pennsylvania. But there were no outbreaks and that was because the protocols – being outside and being in such a spread-out area – work. People were not spreading it in the paddock. It was just a complete knee-jerk reaction.”
He was not at all happy that NHL teams were allowed to play – and cringed when the “Vancouver Canucks almost ended up in the ICU.” When Woodbine officials asked how they could duplicate the protocols adopted by the NHL that allowed them to play, they heard crickets.
So with the last long lockdown and with Education Minister Stephen Lecce announcing another spate of virtual learning for students, MacDonald and his wife had had enough. They made the tough choice to move to Ohio for four months.
It wasn’t as easy as the pictures in their minds. MacDonald thought he’d just get an apartment, buy a few things they needed, and “It will be just like it is in Ontario, but in Ohio.”
But it’s not like that at all, he found.
The second he crossed the border, his financial worth decreased by 30 per cent, just because of the currency exchange. Things have been tight, indeed. “But it’s better than sitting at home and watching everything crumble around you,” he said.
He and his family spent the first week in a hotel room, because no landlord wants to rent a place for less than a year. Forget about finding anything short-term, say even six months. Finally, they found a beautiful little townhouse down the street from Northfield Park. But the family had to lease it for a year.
It’s not in MacDonald’s plans to stay there for a year: Ontario – home – still beckons. Subletting isn’t a subject a landlord wants a tenant to broach. MacDonald says he can’t blame them. But he pressed upon them that his employees who work with his horses in Ohio and Pennsylvania during the summer season, would take over the home when he left, and they agreed to regard it as a corporate lease.
He was also able to reach an agreement with the Wellington Catholic District School Board back home to amend the hours his kids would hook up to learn remotely. They can’t hook up at 10 a.m. when most students do, because both Amy and Anthony spend the morning at the stable. The board agreed to give them their lessons during the afternoon. “That has been extremely helpful to us,” MacDonald said.
Little daughter Adeline landed in a day care and seems to have adjusted among different children, different caretakers, different everything.
It might be different if the MacDonalds had a lot of employees to help out. They left Ontario with at least 50 horses and five caretakers. “To be blunt, “ MacDonald told them: “Your jobs are going to Ohio right now. Do you have any interest in coming for the next two or three or four months?”
They are young folk, 18, 19, 20 years old. They all said yes.
“We are very fortunate,” MacDonald said. “Moving our family and our horses would have been all for nothing, because we wouldn’t had had the labour force to accommodate them.”
It’s a pandemic of its own: finding employees these days. MacDonald was baffled when a nearby Starbucks closed during the mornings, and didn’t open until the middle of the afternoon. Turns out they couldn’t find anybody to work the morning shift. Eventually, MacDonald was able to get his morning coffee.
Currently, trainer/driver Travis Henry is in Ohio, too, crashing on MacDonald’s couch. He left a wife and a young child at home in Ontario so that he can earn some money to pay the bills. He jogs horses in the morning for MacDonald, drives some in the evening. “He knows there’s nothing there right now for anybody,” MacDonald said.
And to reiterate this point: wagering is already done remotely, safely. The money that comes from the wagering dollar fuels the entire sport, the purses for which horses race, the expenses of a racetrack, the drivers, trainers, feed companies. This betting dollar directly and indirectly creates livelihoods for 30,000 people in the province, right down to the guy that brings in the hay. This is why a stoppage of racing – and wagering – completely shutters an entire industry, right up into the rural areas of the province.
MacDonald’s brother, James, just left Ontario for New York and Pennsylvania; top driver Bob McClure headed to The Meadowlands in New Jersey with a stable of good horses. (He’s the guy that won the prestigious $1-million Hambletonian trotting race in New Jersey a couple of years ago. Canadian horsemen are among the best on the continent.) Two-time Canadian Driver of the Year, Louis-Philippe Roy and another top driver Trevor Henry both headed to Hoosier Park in Indiana. Doug McNair, Canada’s driver of the year in 2018, headed to the Meadowlands.
“People just can’t sit,” MacDonald said.
When the flurry of moving had settled and the family found a rhythm, one thing became clear to MacDonald. Life felt normal. “It’s nice to be able to act like a family,” he said. “It was my kid that noticed it. We can go and do things. I raced in Miami Valley down by Cincinnati on the weekend and we went to a hotel, went into a pool. It felt normal. In Ontario, it doesn’t feel normal. The thing that annoys me the most is that the government has somehow tricked people into thinking it’s their fault, but the reality of the situation is, it’s their fault, the people who are supposed to be governing the province and the country.”
In Ohio, 40 per cent of the population has been vaccinated, while other countries like Israel and the United Kingdom have found enough vaccines to battle the COVID virus to the ground. “So don’t tell people you can’t procure it,” MacDonald said. People must still wear masks in Ohio.
The 20 people in MacDonald’s outfit (all Canadians) have either been or will be vaccinated by the end of this week. MacDonald said he had a one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine 18 hours after he arrived in Ohio. Travis Henry arrived at 7 p.m on a Monday night, and he was vaccinated the next day by 10 a.m.
“I think the way they feel in Ohio is quite simple,” MacDonald said. “If you are going to work in our state and walk around in our state, we’d appreciate it if you are vaccinated. So if you’ve got an arm, they’ve got a needle for you.”
MacDonald said he received his vaccination even though he was a Canadian, and had no fixed address at the time, although he had a letter from Northfield Park, saying he was in the state racing and would be here for a while and he had a license to drive horses. “They are looking desperately for ways to vaccinate everybody, instead of trying to make it look neat and pretty,” he said. “They don’t care if it’s messy.”
MacDonald said he felt angry that his own country couldn’t do the same.
He says he hears the frustration and sadness in everyone’s voice when he talks to his Ontario peers. It was hard enough juggling border crossings and COVID last year, when MacDonald had an exemption to cross because he worked on both sides of the border.
That, too, wasn’t as easy as it sounds. “Everybody thinks they would just wave you through at the border, but it wasn’t what happened at all.” MacDonald would have to stop and explain each time that he worked both sides of the border and that he needed to cross frequently. The exemption allowed him to cross, but not his family, so although he had a relatively normal season in 2020, being able to race, he had an abnormal summer in that he rarely saw his wife and children.
He would also get tested each time he came home, not wanting to bring the virus home to his family. He figures he was tested last year 20 to 22 times. The border crossings and all that they entail were stressful.
But at a time when Ontario just came off a lockdown in the summer, the good folk of Ontario weren’t all that thrilled to see him coming in from the United States regularly, he said. “Nobody really wanted me there,” he said. “So you go home to see your family, don’t race your horses, go to the barn, and then go back.”
Last season, he raced much more in Ohio and Pennsylvania than he did in Ontario.
In February, when the virus worsened again in Ontario, MacDonald lost his exemption to cross the border. That meant that every time he returned, he had to do a two-week quarantine. “So there was no going back and forth for Anthony any more,” he said. “So it was either go to the States or stay in Canada. I don’t have two weeks to give up any time, anywhere. I just couldn’t do it.”
He had already planned to go to the United States to race 3-year-old horses as usual, but this time he went earlier, and with his family. In pre-COVID years, he’d take young horses to Ohio and Pennsylvania in May, spend a few days a week, then drive back to Ontario. It’s only a four-hour drive from his home in Guelph, Ont., to Cleveland.
And because there is a shortage of racehorses everywhere, tracks in the United States welcomed MacDonald – and all the rest of the Ontario trainers who left – with open arms. “The second Ontario said they were going to close, I had three different race offices call me and ask me if I’d be sending any horses,” he said. At 11 p.m. one night, a Northfields official called him to say he could have his stalls back from last year, but they had a number of stalls “wide open” and “if you want to move some horses over here, bring as many as you want.”
People were paying attention, to the minute, MacDonald said. “It’s a tough business, top to bottom. People that are trying to fill race cards and run racetracks, they understand the score. If they can steal horses away from Mohawk or Woodbine or Flamboro or London or Grand River, they will.”
Many of the harness drivers and trainers who have left are hoping things will reopen and return. However, MacDonald is seriously worried about the future of racing in Ontario, even if tracks do reopen. “Looking at it now, I just don’t know how they are going to start racing back up,” he said. “The vast majority of our horsemen are across the border. Plenty of our horses across the border. You can say that James MacDonald, Louis-Philippe Roy, Doug McNair, Travis Henry, these guys are all going to go home. But that is not to say that the horses are.”
Anybody running racetracks in Ontario is going to have an “absolutely monumentous” journey to get racing back, he said. “There are so many horses gone. If my horses are making money at Saratoga or Meadowlands or Yonkers, what client would possibly say: ‘Hey, Ontario is racing, they are starting back up in two weeks, you’d better get those horses home.’ No. It’s just not going to happen.”
So it’s no surprise that Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson is looking for a commitment from government for a Woodbine thoroughbred startup as soon as possible. Many horsemen say they are ready to go south within three weeks. If the government can make a commitment, it can at least stem the loss of thoroughbreds to the United States.
MacDonald admits that his evacuation from Ontario was a whirlwind that was frightening. “Its not like we’re moving to Ohio, but the transition, what we had to go through, it literally felt like we just threw clothes in the car and left,” he said. “We had to virtually, for lack of a better term, start a new life for the next three or four months.
“I didn’t want to tip my hand, but I was pretty worried to be honest. And it’s been quite a roller coaster for sure.”