Spring is a magical time in Thoroughbred racing. Hopes and dreams for a new season bubble over for thousands of horsepeople who work in the industry across Canada. Horses are refreshed, owners and trainers can’t stop talking about their prospects and the grooms and riders are eager to get back to long work days after a winter vacation.
Steven Chircop couldn’t wait to get the 2020 racing season at Woodbine started. The 36-year-old was starting his 10th year as a trainer and coming off one of the best seasons of his career. A new father with partner Amy to daughter Ava, Chircop was spending some time in a rented home near Miami, Florida, seeking out horses to buy for his newest client, JDLP Holdings from Pickering, Ontario.
“I had been looking forward to spending the winter at Gulfstream Park,” said Chircop. “I had an opportunity to claim some decent horses for a new owner and Amy and Ava had come down to enjoy the sunshine.”
Chircop, like the rest of the world, was aware that a virus that originated in China had begun to crop up in North America, but it appeared to be isolated in travellers. In February, Chircop and thousands of hockey fans were in Tampa to watch an NHL hockey game featuring his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. “Everything was normal, other than we were washing our hands a bit more.”
On the evening of March 11, Woodbine Entertainment president and CEO Jim Lawson was sitting in his living room watching a sports telecast when it cut away to the Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game. Players were being whisked off the court just before tip-off and an announcement was made that the game was postponed, leaving thousands of fans in the building.
News filtered out: a Jazz player had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I said ‘oh my god’ and knew this was going to have repercussions,” said Lawson. “We swung into action pretty darn fast after that.”
The Scramble to Get Home
Chircop is much like the majority of trainers who race horses; he is not rich, nor are his clients. Horse racing is a business, an expansive and important industry that extends to many parts of the economy. It is also a labour of love.
His bread and butter is sharing ownership with clients to have a chance at earning some purse money while attracting new clients who gain confidence knowing their trainer also owns a share in the horses. He races a few horses in the winter months at tracks such as Penn National in Pennsylvania where he hopes to sell a few horses and scoop some purse money to set up for his Woodbine season. It can cost upwards of $3,500 a month to keep a horse in training and any delay in racing means no chance at purse money for an owner, trainer and barn help.
The next afternoon, Chircop and his new client doled out a hefty $50,000 USD to claim the lightly-raced maiden Kuduro and $16,000 ‒ half of which was Chircop’s money ‒ for Sweet Yare N Dira, a speedy, turf-loving filly. Chircop had a spring in his step as he made his way out of the track that afternoon, until he heard an ominous announcement from race caller Pete Aiello: beginning the next day, fans would no longer be permitted at the track. The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, was taking the world hostage.
“All of a sudden things got scary, people were dying.” said Chircop. “We were being told to come back to Canada and things were shutting down.”
As tracks began to shut down racing, Chircop and his cousin ‒ fellow trainer Kevin Attard ‒ scrambled to get their horses back to Ontario.
“We drove back home together and our phones were going crazy,” said Chircop. “Owners and staff calling us, asking us what was going on. We were checking social media to get updates on what was happening back home at Woodbine. And when the travel ban was announced, it was a mad rush to organize vans and health papers for the horses to get them back home. Everything was backed up.”
By the time they got home and had to quarantine in their homes for 14 days, Chircop and Attard learned that not only was the Woodbine backstretch locked down, allowing for essential workers only, but that training of horses was limited to only light exercise and that workouts were halted.
But that was good news at the time, since a wave of lockdowns of non-essential services in Ontario was underway. Woodbine lined up extra security and medical personnel to check horsepeople entering the barn area. It was no easy task for Lawson, Ontario Racing and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association’s bulldog president Sue Leslie to convince the provincial government, which deemed racing as a non-essential business, that the Woodbine backstretch needed to stay open.
“We had told them that the horses had to be looked after and get a bit of exercise, that it was essential,” said Lawson, who worked closely with medical advisors and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission which regulates racing. “At the same time, we had horses and people coming back from the south and people wanting to give them workouts to get ready for racing. Well, that is not essential. I was very nervous about losing our credibility with the government and at the same time thinking, were we putting people’s lives at risk preparing horses for races that may not happen for many months?”
Horsepeople were worried, too. “We were going into the Woodbine backstretch and getting our temperature taken, wearing masks and keeping our distance so that we could take care of our horses,” said Chircop. “But it was still scary; were we risking getting sick and would there be racing?”
Tougher decisions for Lawson were presented. While medical personnel were hired, including a doctor from William Osler Health, front side staff and most of the food and beverage department for Woodbine was being laid off as a start to the season was up in the air. Soon, many would be let go permanently as the prospects of racing without fans heightened.
“We had to pull back immediately to preserve our capital and keep people safe,” said Lawson. “We were forcing front line workers to be there every day taking temperatures, meanwhile we had more people shipping in every day from the U.S.”
Lawson soon announced the inevitable; the Woodbine season would not start April 19 and no prospective start date was on the table. By that time the world’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby, always held on the first Saturday in May, had been postponed to the first Saturday in September. Woodbine’s biggest event of the year, the Queen’s Plate, scheduled for June 27, was also postponed.
For the owners who had kept their horses training at Woodbine from ship-in day March 1, a relief plan was put in place. Between Woodbine, the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, Ontario Racing and Ontario Lottery and Gaming, unused purse money was distributed to owners with horses already in training. Tracks across the country followed suit and horsepeople and horses either had to go home or keep training with no set date for a resumption of racing in place.
“I was getting up at four o’clock every morning to lose money,” said veteran trainer John Ross. “It was a different world. I had every person on my staff wearing masks and following protocols. But I had my horses and clients’ horses just doing light training and no racing.”
Some trainers took their horses out of Woodbine immediately. “I couldn’t justify charging owners a training day rate at the track when I didn’t know if we would be racing any time soon,” said Michelle Love. Love’s husband, Robert, the head outrider who owns a large team of track ponies, also had to scale back his horses and staff.
A Glimmer of Hope
Better news for racing came in early May when COVID -19 numbers continued to decrease and the government began putting plans in place to re-open the economy.
“My team had worked very hard to establish safety and protocols, as did the horsepeople,” said Lawson. “And we were in very close discussions regularly with government. I think that had everything to do with us getting that phone call [from government] that racing would be included in the Phase 1 opening of the economy. I was as surprised as anyone.”
Racing was set to begin in mid-June and spirits began to rise until May 16 when another virus of a very different kind invaded the track; the equine herspesvirus. The very contagious disease that affects a horse’s neurological system had crept in from a horse arriving from a farm north of the track. Horses died at that farm and at Woodbine.
Workers on the backstretch, already immersed in COVID-19 protocols, were now doubling and tripling bucket washing, equipment cleaning and taking a horses’ temperatures not once, but two or three times in a day. Several barns were quarantined and dozens of horses were affected and it was almost a month before the disease was deemed eradicated.
Racing finally got underway June 6 without fans and strict measures for the few people allowed to accompany their horses to the races. But racing was back and the industry breathed a sigh of relief and went to work finding races for their horses and hoping for some good results.
Horse racing, in fact, was the only major sporting event to resume. Assiniboia Downs, the first Canadian track to open, raked in huge numbers of wagering dollars from racing-starved fans who bet with both hands. Woodbine and Fort Erie, Century Mile in Alberta, and Hastings Racecourse in B.C. followed suit.
Chircop won with his first starter of the season, too ‒ JMR Bold Vision for John and Melanie Michaels who have a farm in Puslinch and a small stable of horses.
“I was so happy for them, they stuck it out and left their horses at the track during the lockdown and they were rewarded with some return.”
It was good news that racing was back, albeit under this ‘new normal’ regime. Purse money and the number of race dates were lighter, but there was racing. Away from the tracks, breeders and stallion owners shared in the relief as they prepared yearlings for the fall sales, hopeful that there would still be plenty of buyer interest for their horses.
Mighty Equine Heroes
Incredibly, amidst this tumultuous and uncertain time an equine hero arrived to put the sport back into the mainstream media. Mighty Heart, the aptly-named one-eyed colt and the only racehorse at the track for Uxbridge’s Lawrence Cordes and his horse-loving family, upset the Queen’s Plate in September with a near-record setting victory. Trained by Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famer Josie Carroll, Mighty Heart would take the second jewel of Canada’s Triple Crown series, the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie, and arrived at the Breeders’ Stakes as the first horse with a chance to win the coveted crown in 17 years.
Mighty Heart’s exploits made the news not only across Canada, but in all parts of the racing world. It was the feel-good story that everyone was so dearly needing. While the colt did not sweep the Triple Crown as he was burned out in a pace battle early in the Breeders’, he rekindled the hopes and dreams for the ‘little guy’.
In Alberta, the front-running victory by the plucky gelding Real Grace in the Canadian Derby brought tears to the eyes of anyone watching the famous race at Century Mile. Real Grace’s Manitoba-based trainer and co-owner Shelley Brown had just won the biggest race of her career, but the young woman was not trackside, instead watching from home while battling cancer.
The victory by the mighty little mare Starship Jubilee over the boys in the $1 million Woodbine Mile (G1) was another remarkable moment in 2020. While most mares her age (seven) are well into their retirement and having little ones, ‘Jubee’ provided her young trainer Kevin Attard with the biggest win of his career.
Owners had been let back into the tracks by the fall as provinces seemed to have a handle on keeping the COVID-19 cases down. It would not last long. Restrictions on track visitors were tightened once again.
Then came one of the most mysterious occurrences in Canadian racing in years; the capsaicin positives. Capsaicin, the ingredient that adds the hot to chili peppers and is considered a Class 2 drug in racing, began to pop up in minute amounts in horses’ tests, Thoroughbred and Standardbred, throughout the country. The source could not be pinpointed and while there was no question that capsaicin was administered by anyone knowingly, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission had to eventually penalize the dozens of trainer’s receiving positive tests. The HBPA fought hard to ensure trainers would not have the offences on their record, but the purse money was taken away. The season ended without any confirmed source of where the capsaicin originated and with some trainers organizing a legal battle against the Canadian Pari Mutuel Agency which tests racehorses.
“Nobody knows where it came from,” said Chircop. “Everyone was scared to run their horses in case they got a positive test. It was just another scary thing that happened this year.”
An Abrupt End, but Hope for Tomorrow
By the Canadian Thanksgiving, when most Canadian tracks had muddled through and completed shortened seasons, the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting its deadly second wave. When the Ontario government issued a lockdown of the city of Toronto in late November, racing was put on the non-essential list again, much to the dismay of the industry. The issue was with the notice that training of horses could continue, but racing could not.
There were just 12 racing days left in the year ‒ 12 important days for horsepeople to race their horses for some purse money to keep them afloat through the winter. Exasperated Lawson and his team, Ontario Racing and the HBPA banded together and spent five days pleading with the government to allow the completion of the season, to no avail.
“I am not convinced that the government’s took into account the magnitude of its decision [to place racing on the locked-down list] and how many people were going to be affected and our safety record up to the point,” said Lawson. The devastation of the abrupt end of the season among horsepeople was palpable. “The cancellation of the last couple of weeks of racing really hit me hard,’ said Ross. “I had some horses that I had planned on dropping a bit in class with a chance to make a bit of purse money.”
Ross, who has bought and trained champions, admits 2020 was the worst year of his career. But Canadians in the horse business are a resilient and passionate bunch. Ross and a couple of his owners replenished their stable by buying at the yearling sale in September, in turn helping breeders stay afloat another year.
“But this is what I chose to do as a career. I have 12 horses at a training centre this winter and I want to stay in it. I love what I do.”
The Love family, too, were crushed. “We took a hard hit financially, losing those last few weeks of racing. I had one two-year-old sitting on a win and a first-time starter that I own that was to race in December.”
Chircop ended 2020 with good results, collecting enough wins, including three with Sweet Yare N Dira, to keep the faith for 2021.
“I have great owners and had some luck. But I don’t know how many of the smaller barns can survive waiting for the 2021 season to start.”
Love says, “We are going to nickel-and-dime through the winter. With racehorses and the outrider ponies we have 23 horses to feed and little income, but the dream continues. It always does.”