First Call is the bugle number normally associated with horse racing. But a more appropriate musical number these days at Woodbine would be Taps.
A number of highly-successful horse racing people have told the Toronto Sun that unless the provincial government allows the sport to resume soon — very soon — a mass sell-off of horses will begin and owners and trainers may walk away from the sport.
If that happens, horse racing will ultimately die in the province, taking away thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue.
“Last night was the first night I actually thought about it,” harness racing owner Mike Tanev told the Sun when asked if he is thinking of getting out. “I said to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ I’ve got so many friends that are owners, and they’re saying they’re fed up. They just don’t want to deal with this anymore.”
What frustrates owners and trainers more than anything is that while other outdoor activities, such as golf, are allowed to continue during the Ontario government’s stay-at-home order, horse racing has been shuttered.
Woodbine Entertainment was forced to suspend harness racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park in Milton this month and delay the start of the thoroughbred season at Woodbine in Rexdale because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
Woodbine has moved the start of the 2021 season from April 17 to May 6, without any guarantees it will begin then, even without spectators. Meanwhile, racing has gone on unabated — in the majority of cases safely — in the U.S.
Kevin Attard, one of the leading thoroughbred trainers at Woodbine, said he may have to re-locate to the United States if racing isn’t allowed to start soon. Attard said he kept his two highly-touted Queen’s Plate contenders — Stephen and Haddassah — in Ontario during the off-season to best prepare them for Canada’s most prestigious race, but now he figures that was a mistake.
“I was able to convince their owners (Al & Bill Ulwelling of Minnesota) to keep them here this winter with me,” said Attard. “We rented a farm and tried to prepare them up here in anticipation of the Woodbine meet starting on time while gearing towards the Queen’s Plate. Now, that kind of all backfired in my face. It puts me in a bad position with the owners.”
To their credit, the Ulwellings told the Sun that they plan to stick it out at Woodbine … for now.
“We love Woodbine and the people,” said Al Ulwelling. “We have slept on it (leaving) and changed our mind. Wherever Kevin Attard goes, we go. But we really need them to get racing.”
Attard said Woodbine’s future comes down to simple economics. If the racing season is chopped to the point where owners and trainers can’t make the money needed to support their stables, they’ll leave.
“Luckily I’ve been able to convince my owners to hold off (leaving) for a couple of weeks in the hopes the (COVID-19) numbers start to go into our favour,” said Attard. “And maybe by that time, we’d be able to get a confirmation from the government that we can race in the grey zone. But if that doesn’t happen, I’m going to have horses leaving, and then it’s a question of, ‘Do I let the horses leave (without me) or do I decide to set up shop in the States?’”
Woodbine’s leading trainer Mark Casse has only about 1/3 of the typical number of horses at Woodbine this spring and may keep more of his horses in the U.S. going forward.
If Woodbine loses trainers like Casse and Attard … well, the writing’s on the wall.
“I’ve worked very hard to get to where I am,” said Attard. “I’ve built a good clientele, we have some good horses, and I was really excited for the start of the (2021) season and now everything is just kind of falling apart in front of my eyes really quickly.
“Leaving is not an easy decision, but it’s something I’ve been definitely contemplating. I’ve heard other guys saying if racing doesn’t start by early to mid-May, they’re going to be shipping out,” he added. “They might not take all their horses, but definitely whichever ones they think are competitive and ready, they’ll be leaving. You can only continue to train for so long before everybody’s going to pull the plug.
“Had I gone to Florida or someone else to train in the U.S. this winter, we’d be racing now,” Attard continued. “On top of that, I’d be vaccinated. I thought I was doing the smart thing by staying home and waiting it out, and it’s just backfired. And now I regret I did what I did.”
Like everyone else at Woodbine, Attard is hoping that the Ontario government answers the call for a mobile COVID-19 vaccination site set up at the Woodbine backstretch. The track is located in a COVID hotspot with more than 1,000 workers, about 300 live in dorms on the site.
So far, positive tests have remained low at the Rexdale track thanks to comprehensive safely protocols. Vaccinations would make the situation even better.
“We’ve done a great job, but these variants might be a little bit more transmissible and the numbers (in Ontario) are kind of escalating quickly,” said Attard.
“To me, it’s a no-brainer, the first step is they need to go and vaccinate the whole backstretch. It’s a big population of workers, it fits all the criteria — it’s in a hot zone, low-wage workers, some live in the dorms, they have to share those rooms,” he added. “Let’s get a mobile vaccination site out there and vaccinate that whole population. And then I think the government has more assurance that we’ll be able to operate safely in the grey zone.”