There won’t be any fans in the stands, on the rail or in the many top-notch restaurants at Canada’s biggest racetrack but Thoroughbred racing will return Saturday June 6 when Woodbine opens.
The deadly COVID-19 pandemic has had tragic results in the world and continues to be a threat but as the number of cases begins to steady in Ontario, government has begun to open businesses. Horse racing, which provides thousands of jobs, was on the short list three weeks ago to begin the process of opening (in the case of Woodbine Mohawk standardbred racing, re-opening).
That came as precious news to hundreds of horse owners and breeders, trainers and caretakers who have been caring for horses at Woodbine since they shipped in on the first weekend of March. It has been a trying time since then as the provincial ‘state of emergency’ meant that the number of people on the backstretch was restricted, workouts and gate schooling halted and owners and trainers were left paying bills while the originally scheduled opening day of Woodbine of April 18 passed by.
During that time, hard-working efforts by the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, Woodbine and Ontario Racing worked out with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming and Alcohol and Gaming Commission to distribute unused purse money from cancelled racing days to owners.
Protocols at Woodbine including horsepeople screening, social distancing and the addition of masks were implemented and while that was no easy task to control for hundreds of people, staff at Woodbine and the horsepeople came together to essentially lock down the barn areas.
Meanwhile the stakes schedule, including the famed Queen’s Plate, had to be re-worked, condition books re-written and plenty of rules put in place for when racing gets underway.
Entries for the first day of a new-look Woodbine racing season will be taken on Wednesday June 3 but only by phone as no people will be allowed in the racing office. There will be restrictions to the number of people allowed to take a horse to the Woodbine paddock for races and no owners are allowed to attend at this time.
But everyone can agree that getting a chance to finally race their prized runners after 25 lost racing dates is great news and the track offers some impressive purses. Opening day offers a maiden allowance race for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and upward, for a whopping $123,200.
Racing will be held June 6 and June 7 and Thursdays will be added the following week with a post time of 3:45 p.m. Fridays will be added in week 3 and post time for all days other than Thursday is 1 p.m.
Wednesday night racing has been put on hold for now as it was mainly a date to cater to groups and those dining and without spectators allowed, there will not be any bars or restaurants open.
Throughout the past almost three months, Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson has been in constant communication with horsepeople with email updates and a regular video meeting called Stronger Together. The next one is Wednesday June 3 at 2 p.m.
The first 2 stakes races of the season are the Star Shoot Stakes at 6 furlongs on June 13, a good starting point for 3-year-old fillies preparing for the August 15 Woodbine Oaks. Nominees for the race include Sovereign Award winning 2-year-old filly CURLIN’S VOYAGE and her rival MERVEILLEUX.
On June 14, the Woodstock Stakes for 3-year-olds at 6 furlongs will be run and the impressive debut winner CLAYTON is a contender for that race as he embarks on his journey to the Queen’s Plate.
American trainer Wesley Ward, often a fixture at Woodbine in the spring, has a number of horses nominated to races, although shippers would have to come up and join the care of trainers already at Woodbine.