And they’re off!: Woodbine’s thoroughbred season back after long COVID layoff

Jockey Daisuke Fukumoto guides Five Days in May to victory in the first race at Woodbine on Saturday. Woodbine started its thoroughbred season, eight weeks after opening day was supposed to take place.

Early Friday evening, Twin B Powerball ushered in the restart.

After a somewhat heavy-handed 69-day shutdown of Ontario’s horse racing operations, the three-year-old pacer took the first race contested in the province, a dash at Grand River Raceway. 

Minutes later, Amini, with Doug McNair driving, took the first of 11 races at Woodbine Mohawk Park which had been dark, spare for some morning qualifying races, since April 3. McNair would have two winners on the opening card as would James MacDonald and Sylvain Filion.  

Woodbine started its thoroughbred season on Saturday, eight weeks after opening day was supposed to take place. Jockey Daisuke Fukumoto masterfully crafted a tracking trip along the rail to get Five Days in May home in the day’s first race for trainer Bob Tiller and owner Frank Di Giulio Jr. The return to action was a relief for those who worked and competed on Woodbine’s opening day.

“It’s a day we waited for, for such a long-long time,” track announcer Robert Geller said at the top of the Woodbine television broadcast. “We’ve weathered the storm. It’s outstanding in terms of the resilience of our racing community that we’re here today.” 

While no one questions the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the horse racing industry was unfairly clumped in with other outdoor activities in the province’s shutdown. Despite consistent pleas to the provincial government from Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson among other industry leaders, and also despite proving throughout last year’s shortened season that Ontario’s racetracks had a firm grasp on all necessary safety protocols, horse racing was forced to ride out the restrictions with everyone else until the re-opening plan was put in place.

There were visual ramifications. With the remainder of the racing world open, in some cases with fans in the stands, Ontario’s restriction proved to be a bit embarrassing, even with a significant pouring of support from other jurisdictions.  

More importantly, the cash flow wasn’t there for the people that matter most. Horse racing is a big business supported by a whole lot of small businesses. Jockeys and drivers, effectively independent contractors selling their services on a race-by-race basis, were without their races. Trainers, who run a stable with employees who have no option but to care all day for the horses they are assigned to, were also running short of revenues. Some horsemen were able to take temporary refuge in the U.S. and get some work, but not all were that lucky. 

But once the gate opened, it was back to business. It turned out to be a good day for trainer Bill Tharrenos, who sent Divine Martha to win the second race with Ademar Santos up, and later saw Hidden Identity put in the most impressive performance of the day, taking the sixth race by over 10 lengths with Emma-Jayne Wilson riding. Tiller and Di Giulio book-ended the card by taking the final race with Simple Souvenir, who just got his nose on the wire in a narrow photo with Skye Chernetz aboard.  Nine trainers got winners on the 11-race card. 

Leading the jockeys was 2020 Sovereign Award winner and leading rider Rafael Hernandez, who got up late with Show Some Skin in the fifth for trainer Norm McKnight and rode 4-5 favorite Spightstown Shirl to win the seventh for trainer Roger Attfield. Hernandez did end on a low note, going down in a spill in the 11th race while riding Super Jade, but was able to walk off on his own power.  

Racing resumes at Woodbine with a stacked 13-race program on Sunday and will begin a regular Thursday-Sunday schedule next week. The first four stakes races will be contested next weekend.  

Also Saturday, Hiawatha Horse Park, Hanover Raceway, and Kawartha Downs kicked off their summer seasons. Dresden Raceway, Clinton Raceway, and Rideau Carleton Raceway get back to competition on Sunday. Fort Erie’s thoroughbred meet and Georgian Downs’ harness races get going on Tuesday. And Ajax Downs finally gets the quarter-horses back to the gate on Wednesday. Racing at all locals will remain spectator-free for the next little while.  

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