For the third time in a year, Thoroughbred racing in Ontario will lose racing dates due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the battering of a 30,000-person industry continues.
As the province reels in record numbers of positive cases and hospital admittances, Premier Doug Ford issued at Stay at Home order beginning Thursday, April 8. It is set to end on Thursday, May 6.
The 2020 racing season was delayed from mid-April to early June when the pandemic began to take hold in the world.
The last 12 days of the season last fall were then scrapped because the province deemed training of horses was allowed but not racing, frustrating the industry since those who train the horses are the ones who race the horses. Woodbine held more than 90 racing days last year safely.
This year’s season was set to begin April 17 and more than 1,000 horses have been in steady training for more than 4 weeks.
Frustration among owners and trainers reached a new level following the announcement, with several indicating their stable of Woodbine horses would be leaving and heading to tracks in the U.S.
“I blame the government for such uncertainties,” said owner Al Ulwelling, who has made a large commitment to Ontario racing in the past few years. “This is a major industry who many work [in] and depend on.”
Ulwelling and father Bill have been foaling mares in Ontario and have expanded their racing stable with mostly Ontario-bred racehorses, but intimated that the horses may leave Woodbine to race in the U.S.
The Ulwellings trainer, Kevin Attard, kept horses in Ontario to train this winter for the first time, rather than go to Florida to train, but now faces so much uncertainty as to when the horses can begin racing.
“These owners have invested a lot,” said Attard. “Our government has failed us. We need a guarantee now we will be racing [when the 28-day order is over].”
Owner/trainer Cole Bennett, who raced his first horse at Keeneland racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky, on Thursday, said his stable of horses at Woodbine will be leaving to join his Kentucky string.
At Fort Erie, horses shipped in a week ago and its season is set to begin June 1.
In a letter to horsepeople. Woodbine CEO and president Jim Lawson said every effort will be made to begin racing as soon as the Stay at Home order is over, suggesting a May 8 start could happen.
As a result of the Provincial State of Emergency declared today by the Government of Ontario, which includes a province-wide 28-day stay-at-home order effective Thursday, April 8 at 12:01 a.m., Woodbine Entertainment announced that the 2021 Thoroughbred Meet at Woodbine Racetrack has been postponed.
Woodbine Entertainment also confirmed that it is continuing its efforts with government officials and local health authorities to be permitted to safely operate live racing during a lockdown situation which would allow the Thoroughbred season to commence after the stay-at-home order is lifted on May 6. The season was scheduled to begin on Saturday, April 17.
“This is very difficult news to share with our horse people, horse players and fans throughout North America and the world,” said Jim Lawson, CEO, Woodbine Entertainment. “Since the beginning of the pandemic more than a year ago, we have supported the Government of Ontario every step of the way and will continue to do so.
“However, if we do not receive permission to safely operate live racing during a lockdown situation after the stay-at-home is lifted, our industry and business could be greatly impacted as trainers will not bring their horses to Woodbine Racetrack and more horses will be shipped-out to the United States where there are plenty of racing opportunities. This situation has the potential to have a devastating and long-lasting impact on the thoroughbred industry in Ontario.”
During stay-at-home order, Woodbine will continue to operate the backstretch at Woodbine Racetrack as an essential service for the stabling, training and care of horses. Active training, including timed workouts, will continue but starting gate and receiving barn training operations will be temporarily suspended for 10 days.
~ with files from Woodbine Entertainment