All the curry combs in the world won’t fix this mess that the horsepeople of Woodbine find themselves in these days, as they try to dodge the relentless third wave of the COVID pandemic.
They need to set the combs down and race. Actually race.
If they don’t, an entire community that creates tens of thousands of agricultural jobs in the province could be in peril.
The provincial government allows Woodbine folk to train and work horses, but not to race them. And there’s the rub.
Canadian horse racing hall of fame trainer Bob Tiller says he’s coping, but he can’t cope forever. After a winter off, the Woodbine thoroughbred season was to have started April 17, but the most recent lockdown is in effect until May 20. They are all hobbled until then, apparently.
“I’m 71 years old and I’m still working seven days a week, getting up at 4:30 in the morning,” Tiller said. “I’ve never made less and invested more than I have the last two years. And believe me, me and my owners are on the edge of finding our way out of this. We don’t need this. I don’t need this. I love the sport, but…”
Tiller said he’s currently $125,000 in the hole, just as he was at the start of the belated season last year. But at least, last season he could make it back. He had a successful season, finishing third in the trainer standings, and a heartbeat from second place among Woodbine trainers. He doesn’t expect that kind of season this year. Other smaller stables are in a far worse situation than he.
“We need racing,” Tiller said. “Financially, this thing is very hard on a lot of people. It’s very hard on the owners. It’s very hard on the trainers who have no chance to make any money. There is a lot of stress.”
Trainers charge horse owners a day rate, but it gets eaten quickly by expenses. As Tiller said: “Your day rate just goes in your right hand, and through your body and out the left.” He can’t make money on his day rate. Trainers make a small percentage of the winning purse.
And prices are way up again. There is a shortage of labour, of grooms and exercise riders on the backstretch, so they are demanding more money. The ones that are left rarely get a day off. There is a shortage of feed, so the costs are way up on that, too. “So we’re getting killed here,” Tiller said.
Last year, Tiller said his payroll was $783,000. He currently has 43 horses. “Nobody understands that,” he said. “No executive at Woodbine or anybody. I provide a lot of jobs. I provide the government with a lot of taxes. I gotta win races. I GOTTA win races.”
He’s not sure that the owners of horses can withstand the shutdown much longer, either. “My owners pay the bills,” Tiller said. “I feel very sorry for them, for getting killed. I don’t care how rich or poor you are, you can’t afford to do that, keep losing that kind of money.”
He has one owner whose one-month bill to keep the horses was $70,000 – but he is unable to take in any purse money, with racing shut down at Woodbine. “This is hurting people really, really bad,” Tiller said. “I didn’t expect two years in a row, the same nonsense.”
Currently there is a program to give unused purse money back to owners. But Tiller calls the handout “a ham and cheese sandwich.
“They give you $1,100 per horse. That’s peanut butter. We need more racing dates this year.”
He thinks Woodbine should offer racing right up until Jan. 1, although there doesn’t seem to be political will to do that at the moment. Racing becomes uncertain during December, as winter takes hold, but Tiller said it would help if they could at least get 80 per cent of the December dates in.
Perhaps Woodbine could start racing five days a week instead of four, when they are allowed to return, Tiller said.
Tiller has always raced only at Woodbine and is loath to leave. “I want to race at Woodbine,” he said. “My horses run here and I don’t race in the winter time.” He owns 10 of the horses he trains; he figures that has cost him $80,000 since Woodbine shut down before the season ended prematurely in November with lockdown.
“They can race and make money and they will,” he said. And if this keeps up, they will be going somewhere. How long can I wait? I don’t know. I need to see the (COVID) numbers come down a little bit. I’ll hang out another month or so. After that, I gotta do something.”
Meanwhile another Hall of Fame trainer, Roger Attfield, is in limbo, too, but looking at everything from the opposite side of the fence. He went to Florida over the winter with a stable of horses and his hired help. He’s still there, on hold while Woodbine is in lockdown.
Attfield, at age 80, admitted he was concerned about taking himself and his horses to Florida over the winter. He’d heard all the stories about COVID sweeping the state. “I thought at the beginning of winter, it was dangerous to come here,” he said from Florida. But the move turned out to be the right one.
“I came down here prepared to wear my mask and social distance and stay out of anywhere really busy and that’s what I did,” he said. “It was fine. And then they gradually opened up more and more.”
Attfield is fully vaccinated. (Tiller has had only one shot.) Attfield said it was easy: He applied to five places and within three days got his first shot. He was given a card to return three weeks later, and then, he got his second shot.
“I’ve been able to live just about a normal life,” he said. “I’m in pretty good shape.” He still wears a mask, just to be safe.
But with all the dire news from Woodbine, Attfield’s owners, especially the American ones, have told him they don’t want him to send horses back to Woodbine unless he can guarantee that they can race. And Attfield cannot, so they remain in Florida, and he has some at Keeneland in Kentucky, too, where he usually stops before returning home. “I didn’t expect it to get as bad as it did up there,” he said. “It seems to me from the outside, that the government is a total mess-up.”
Attfield is gradually sending some of his employees back to Canada, because of the two-week quarantine requirement. He can’t afford to have them all do the quarantine at the same time. And to keep them busy, he’s sent some horses back, too.
But that means he doesn’t have all the employees he needs in the United States. “So now you’ve got some in one place or the other, you’ve got horses that don’t have any help. It gets very very complicated and very hard on the people you do have working for you. They are overworking.” At least, Attfield says, the horses he has at Woodbine are a little ways from running anyway.
Attfield says his assistant, Sarah Sullivan stayed in Canada and just recently got her first vaccination. “She’s very relieved,” Attfield said. “She was getting very scared. And she was in the wrong postal code to get it done.”
Attfield says he can’t complain; because he’s not fully at Woodbine, he’s better off than some of his friends in Toronto.
What is difficult for Tiller is having to watch racetracks race full-on with spectators in the United States. The Kentucky Derby is coming up, with reduced numbers of spectators, but holding to its traditional first Saturday in May. All of the Derby preps across the country have gone on without a hitch. But the Woodbine horsemen cannot and it’s the only racing jurisdiction in North America in this boat – shuttered by one of the longest lockdowns on the continent.
Despite a COVID outbreak on the backstretch last week, the Woodbine folk continue to work because horses must be fed and cared for. They are allowed to train horses and work them, too, but to no end purpose. This, Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame trainer Bob Tiller cannot understand.
“What’s the difference?” said Tiller. “It’s safer to run horses than be on the backstretch. Much safer. You are in an outdoor environment and there aren’t that many people going to the paddock [to race,] You’re not involving all the amount of people that you have on the backside.”
In other words, all the people who work on the backstretch are the people who race on the frontside. One race at a time, horses and their grooms walk from the backstretch to the trackside. When one race finishes, horses go back to the barns, and horses from the next race walk over to the racing area. Last year, Woodbine was able to conduct races from June to November without a single case of COVID, not counting the positive case of a jockey who contracted the bug from outside. It worked.
Also, racing has long been set up so that people can wager remotely. And they still could. It’s this money that fuels the purses, that trickles down to the tracks and owners and trainers and jockeys and exercise riders and grooms and hot walkers and blacksmiths and veterinarians and jockey agents, and valets and paddock judges, and starting gate crew and horse breeders and equipment manufacturers, and the feed supply, and even truck and trailer and fencing sales people.
Racing in Ontario was the envy of North America during the days of the Slots-At-Racetrack program. When the government dismantled the agreement, the business shrank markedly. And now, with COVID and a lockdown, tracks are getting hit a second time. So Ontario tracks have gone from being envied to not being able to race at all.
At last count, there are 20 COVID cases on the backstretch. Woodbine chief Jim Lawson admits it is an outbreak. The entire Barn 33 was shut down when 10 people who worked there tested positive. One of Woodbine’s leading trainers Kevin Attard was in that barn, so are two other licensed trainers. There are cases in other barns, too. Horses have been sent off the track. Attard, himself, is suffering from COVID. So is trainer Dave Cotey, whose small stable has also shipped out of Woodbine. All of them are isolating and wondering where the next buck is coming from.
“It was a matter of when and not if COVID was going to enter the backstretch with the current situation in Ontario,” Attard said.
Ironically, Attard always went south to race his horses in the winter, and last spring had to make a wild dash back to Canada before borders closed down. With two Queen’s Plate prospects in his stable, he decided to avoid the trouble and stay in Canada. Now he’s ill and isolating and can’t race. He couldn’t win.
The issue has been that backstretch workers in recent weeks haven’t always been telling the truth about their illnesses on the forms they had to fill out upon entering the backstretch. (Woodbine is located in an area that is a COVID hotspot in Toronto.) They needed to work. To make things worse, there is a shortage of skilled labour on the backstretch. If they don’t do the work, who will?
The grooms and the exercise riders and the trainers are the essential workers of the racetrack in this city within a city.
The situation is so dire that lately the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association has started a bumper-sticker campaign to attract backstretch workers to Ontario. Attfield, who was in on it, said they advertised out west and east, offering to pay workers’ transportation costs to Ontario, but to no avail.
Marquis Downs in Saskatchewan has shut down, but workers there were only part-time and had other jobs to maintain. And they won’t move. “And of course, the government is paying a lot of people not to work,” Attfield said. “That’s a major problem.”
Over the past three weeks, Tiller has 40 emails from track management, trying to manage the situation. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “They’re trying to do the best they can.” But he knows backstretch folk will be subject to more restrictions. Tiller says he can barely breathe with one mask, and won’t be able to double mask (the latest rule.) “Maybe the mask will kill me,” he said. “Not everybody has all the answers. We need to get through this and I think we will get through this.
“But if this keeps up any longer, a lot of people will be in big trouble, especially financially, never mind mentally.” Tiller said. People are stressed out.
“I don’t think we can get past the month of June,” he added. “We just can’t. We have to open up…I need my owners. Without my owners, I can’t pay my bills.”
If all that wasn’t bad enough, Tiller’s wife, Gail, is undergoing treatment for lymphoma. The lockdown situation isn’t helping with any of that. “Thank god, I have a good disposition,” Tiller said. “A strong disposition.
“But there are days I have to fight my own emotions.”