In 2007 and 2008, I was the communications coordinator for harness racing at the Woodbine Entertainment Group in Toronto. I was on the front lines of the upper echelons of the sport, attending some of the richest stakes races in North America, and it was through that lens that I got to witness a truly extraordinary equine athlete — an Ontario-bred pacing colt named Somebeachsomewhere.
If you have any sort of Standardbred background, the name (however unwieldy — it came from a country song, I’m told) needs no introduction. If you don’t, let me put it in perspective for you: this horse was harness racing’s answer to Secretariat. Not just the horse of a generation, but of a lifetime — and owned by a small collective of car dealership owners and assorted friends from tiny Truro, Nova Scotia. Gawd, it wrote itself.
I watched this colt burst on the scene in Ontario as a two-year-old, winning the Metro Pace like a tornado. Even then, he was a bruiser, almost twice the size and bulk of his juvenile competitors, and his gait was effortless. There was a sense of enormous power that just rippled off this horse.
I watched him win the Pepsi North America Cup, then a $1.5 million dollar mile, the following June. I interviewed his trainer and part-owner, Brent MacGrath, and his driver, Paul MacDonell, a couple of dozen times at least, and wrote about the horse almost weekly, either for WEG (which was riding the wave of his career with everything it could muster, given that Mohawk — WEG’s “summer” track just west of Toronto — was more-or-less Beach’s home oval) or for other publications like the Canadian Sportsman, Trot, or Hoof Beats, the US Trotting Association’s magazine.
If you click on either of the links above, you’ll get a complete synopsis of the horse’s career. (There was tons in the Sportsman, too, of course, but that archive, alas, is no longer with us.) He lost only one race — the $1 million Meadowlands Pace — to Art Official, but the effort was so valiant that it only enhanced his reputation. Towards the end of his three-year-old year, MacGrath sent Somebeachsomewhere to Kentucky to the Red Mile — renowned for being the fastest track in North America, if not the world — specifically to chase the world record. Watch how effortlessly Beach paces a 1:46.4 mile to smash the record for three-year-old pacing colts and equal the world record for any horse of any age:
Now, a horse like this almost never gets to race beyond his three-year-old year. He was simply too valuable to risk breaking down on the racetrack. So off went Somebeachsomewhere to stand at stud in the United States. Click on that link for stats and video of some of the more prominent of his progeny. None have dominated the sport quite so completely as their sire, but many have been damned impressive (one son, Captaintreacherous, captured the 2013 NA Cup), and as far as we knew, the best was yet to come.
Unfortunately, the news came on Sunday, January 14th, that The Beach had been euthanized thanks to the discovery of large cell lymphoma in his intestine. The stallion was 13, and there had been only a brief mention of health issues in the news prior to this, back in November. To say his death was unexpected is an understatement.
The photos at the top of this post have never seen the light of day before … they’re shots I took of Beach and his trainer and biggest fan and promoter, Brent MacGrath, warming up on the track at Mohawk in the late afternoon, before the 2008 North America Cup. Hard to believe that’s a three-year-old.
Most years, one or two horses emerge in the ranks of three-year-old trotters and pacers to dominate to some degree. But we’re not going to see the likes of Somebeachsomewhere again. I’m grateful I got to be a small part of that ride, which I’ll always consider to be one of the highlights of my media career.
A few more photos I found in my archives, from spring, 2008. The other colt with Somebeachsomewhere is Deweycheatumnhowe, who was just as dominant that year on the trotting side of things. I think I was one of only two photographers to get some shots of the two of them in close proximity. It really was an extraordinary season.
Probably has something to do with having grown up just a few klicks down the road from Windsor Raceway. Essex County was jughead country, once upon a time — that’s really all there was in terms of horseflesh, apart from a smattering of Quarter Horses. I did my time grooming at the track, learning to adjust hobbles and wrap legs and clean a shit tonne of harness and pretending to drink the nasty coffee the farriers were kind enough to hand me when I took my charges to the backstretch shed to get their shoes reset. (Never been a coffee drinker.) And I dealt with my share of razzing from the other grooms, who figured I was just a clueless ridin’ hoss kid. (Yeah, guys, I knew there was no such thing as stifle boots. I wasn’t that green.)
Of course, my rescuing instincts kicked in early, encouraged by the fact that newbie grooms aren’t generally handed the stable’s superstars to rub on. Of the four under-performing horses I was responsible for, I found après-racing homes for two in short order — a gorgeous gray Laag descendant who had two of the worst bowed tendons I’d ever seen, and a cute little bay nicknamed Toby, who looked more like a Morgan than a Standardbred, and became a beloved trail horse for a friend of mine. The first horses I ever broke to ride on my own were Standardbreds, too — the very first being a 13-year-old pacer named O O Charlie, who swung his head around to peer at me when I first climbed on his back, raised one sardonic eyebrow which clearly said, “Humans and their damn fool ideas”, and then quietly got on with his new job.
I’ve always done what I could to promote the idea of Standardbreds as riding horses — because, let’s face it, without that opportunity for them once their racing careers are done, the only other options are a can … or a home with the Mennonites. There’s a large Mennonite community west of Toronto, and they go through a lot of horses, but in many cases they buy them for practically nothing off the track, pound them into the ground in a year or two (you only have to see the condition of some of these horses, trotting or pacing furiously down the side of Highway 86 next to the transport trucks and school buses, to know they’re not long for this world), and then dump them for meat price at the auction in St. Jacob’s, pick up another, and start the cycle all over again. I’m not saying the entire Mennonite community subscribes to this approach — there are some amazing horsemen among them — but too many do for anyone to think that such a fate is likely to be good news for an ex-racehorse who’s already given his all.
As riding horses, though, Standardbreds suffer from something of a branding problem. To some degree, I blame the lack of chrome. Standies tend to come in bay, bay, or bay, with a minimum of white markings to bling them up. Chestnuts are rare, grays and roans even rarer. Not a lot of flash there to attract the average ammie owner.
Historically, they’re also … well, kind of ugly. Jughead, buckethead … at one time, the name fit. They don’t race on their faces, so it was never an issue at the track, but given the choice between a big Roman nose and a little Arab-y dished face, most riders will go for pretty. The reality is that Standardbreds over the past 30 years or so have become far, far more refined and elegant than they used to be, and the big clunky heads are all but gone from the gene pool, but a lot of people don’t realize that.
Then there’s the gaited thing. Standardbreds come in two varieties: trotters, and pacers. Trotters have the normal three gaits — walk, trot, and canter — but the pacers have an extra gear, the lateral two-beat gait that endows them with blinding speed (pacers are generally a second or two faster over a mile than trotters are, which is why there are separate divisions for each gait and they don’t race each other). The tendency to pace is there even in some of the trotters, and the pacers can be taught to trot; in fact, they often prefer it when not in racing hobbles, but tend to revert to pacing when they get discombobulated. Trouble with that is, pacing ain’t the most comfortable thing under saddle, and most competitive horse sports require trotting. There are few dressage tests, for example, written for “trot or alternate gait”. (Interestingly, many pacers can be encouraged, with the right training and shoeing, to perform some version of a single-foot or racking gait, like many other types of gaited horses. It’s kind of an intermediate between trotting and pacing, and very smooth to sit to when done correctly. Not a whole lot of call for it here in Ontario, though, where interest in gaited horses is a fringe thing at best.)
In addition, while Standardbreds are absolutely capable of cantering and galloping, they have been actively discouraged from doing so all of their racing lives. To go from trotting or pacing, to galloping, in a race, is called ‘making a break’, and it means the driver must get the hell out of the way of the horses who are still moving their feet in the approved way, drop to the back of the pack, and resume trotting or pacing before rejoining the race. Generally, it means you’ve got no shot at a paycheque, so in harness racing, galloping is verboten, and it can be a tough training hurdle to convince an ex-racehorse that it’s now okay to use that gear, both because of the inhibition cemented in their brains by race training, and because most of them are frankly rusty at doing it. Canter can be added to any Standardbred’s repertoire, but it takes patience and persistence (and sometimes some creativity) to make it happen.
So those are the marketing challenges. On the up side, there’s lots to like. Standardbreds are tough, athletic, intelligent, eager to please, and temperament-wise I have to admit they are way more tolerant and sensible than your average off-the-track Thoroughbred. (As a lifelong owner of OTTBs, I say that with love.) Those who have racing experience will cross-tie, stand for the vet and the farrier, load on any trailer. And not to overstate the obvious, but they come broke to drive. Riding is a pretty simple transition for horses who already understand voice commands, rein aids, and mouth contact.
Plus, they’re generally dirt cheap. Or free to a good home.
Organizations like the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society are doing excellent work promoting Standies as potential riding horses, and the recent upswing in interest in “racing under saddle” (RUS) in Ontario is helping too. “Monte” races (as they’re called in Europe) have always been popular in Scandinavia, and the RUS circuit here is growing every year. (Note to trainers: I so want to do this! Gimme a horse and some silks, and I will give it my best shot!)
So as I’ve expanded my interest in judging over the past few years, it was kind of a natural development for me to end up judging schooling shows for Standardbreds.
Yes, Standardbred shows are a thing. A fairly recent thing, in Ontario at least, but it’s evolving into a nice little circuit of a half-dozen shows or so over the course of each summer. The idea is to showcase the versatility of the breed, so as a judge, you better be pretty damn versatile yourself.
So how does that work? At a minimum, you’ve got to be prepared to cover showmanship, halter, leadline classes, pleasure and equitation, dressage, trail, gaming (barrel racing, pole bending, and the like), pleasure driving, obstacle driving (aka “cones”), hunter and jumper classes over fences, costume classes … and pretty much anything else the show organizers can come up with. We’re talking both English and Western classes, open and youth (under 18) … with allowances made for gaits. For many of these horses, canter or lope is still a work in progress, so competitors can enter a flat class which only requires walk, and trot or pace (pacing is not penalized as long as it is consistent), or they can be brave and go for the walk/trot-or-pace/canter option (or walk/jog-or-pace/lope in the case of Western classes).
You do need to be open-minded to do this job. Some of the horses who’ll turn up in the show ring have had years of mileage under saddle, and could easily compete in open shows anywhere without anyone being the wiser about their former careers (unless, of course, the white freezebrands on their necks give them away). Some of them do. Others are still fairly fresh to this whole riding thing, and are coping with the new requirements as best they can. Some — and this still blows me away — compete in these shows while still maintaining active racing careers! So, you know, you make allowances. On the whole, I find most Standardbreds adapt to the requirements of English classes a little more easily than they do Western — I have yet to judge a Western pleasure class at a Standardbred show where any of the horses was really delivering a slow jog or a balanced, slow lope (but then again, given the current state of the ‘real’ Western pleasure industry, that’s not entirely a bad thing, methinks). There’s a fair bit of zooming around, and refraining from posting to that big trot (or pace) is a tall order, but on the up side, a fair number of Standardbreds do suit Western fringes and sequins surprisingly well. And lemmee tell you, I enjoy the hell out of those blingy outfits, because it helps me differentiate between all the bay entries on my judge’s card. I can scribble “turquoise hat” or “purple saddle pad” or “giant silver hearts” at the beginning of the class, and it makes finding each entry at a glance a lot easier. Not so with the English classes, where the attire tends to be much of a muchness just like the horses!
The halter classes are something of a challenge, too. Generally, in a halter class, you are rewarding conformation of a certain type, and blemishes are penalized. If I penalized blemishes in a Standardbred halter class, there’d be no-one left to pin a ribbon to. Most of these old warriors have some sort of track jewellery on display — so my job is more about deciding whether pin-fire marks on the front cannons are less or more objectionable than a big knee or a pair of extensively cryo’ed hocks. (Cryo is about treating injuries with super-cold liquid nitrogen, and it leaves tell-tale white marks when the hair grows back in.) I try to step back and take in the big picture on each horse, rather than nitpick about the scars. Is he balanced and athletic? Does he look the part for the class in which he’s entered (ie. is he more of an English type, or Western, or even Saddleseat)? Can he keep out of his own way, and is he groomed within an inch of his life and presented with pride? That’s my thought process for these classes.
The awesome thing about these horses, and their extremely devoted owners, is that they’ll often compete in just about every class for which they’re eligible, all day long, and never complain. They’ll often do all the English classes in the morning (mom in the open classes, and a son or daughter in the tack for the junior division), switch to Western in the afternoon, and hook up to a jog-bike or a Meadowbrook for the end-of-day driving classes … and then come back in the costume class festooned with feather boas, finger paint, and giant sunflowers. That’s a tall order for any horse, let alone one who came to his or her riding career relatively late in life. I’ll be honest: they may not necessarily be fulfilling all the requirements of every class extraordinarily well. Sometimes what’s happening in front of me wouldn’t quite cut it in an open show, competing against other breeds. But that’s kind of the point: the Standardbred shows give them a place to try out new skills in front of people who are going to cheer rather than sneer. It’s a hugely supportive environment, and everyone tries so damn hard, I often have tremendous difficulty awarding the placings. I want them all to win. What’s more, they’re upping their game every year. When I compare what I saw at the first of these shows I ever judged, five or six years ago, to what I witnessed in 2015, I’m amazed at how far so many of these riders and horses have come.
It’s not a judging gig that everyone would relish. It’s a little outside the norm of a typical hunter schooling show, where I generally watch horses go over the same one or two outside-diagonal-outside-diagonal courses all fricking day, first at two feet, then two-foot-three, then two-foot-six, then … you get the gist. With so many classes, Standardbred shows can also make for a helluva long day. But I get a huge kick out of them, and I hope we start to see more of them outside Ontario soon. (Ahem. Have clipboard, will travel …)
Further reading on second careers for Standardbreds:
From Trot magazine: My article on the adoption of Primetime Bobcat: Ninth Life of One Cool Cat
From the United States Trotting Association website, my coverage of one of the first RUS races in Ontario in 2011: Trotters Do It Under Saddle At Georgian Downs
From the Daily Racing Form: Plenty of Life After Racing
From Standardbred Canada: Life After Racing
Info on the Ontario Standardbred show series: Standardbred Showcase
And here’s a new article which sheds some light on the canter thing: Why Some Standardbreds Canter More Easily Than Others
In racing, it’s the trainers and the drivers (or jockeys) who get all the press and all the credit when a horse emerges as a superstar. But it’s the overworked, underpaid grooms, or caretakers, who bond with these horses and devote themselves to their every need, who live out of suitcases for months at a time, who clean harness and shovel shit and know their horses inside out, and sometimes check themselves out of the hospital to be there for a race …. and then watch them head off in triumph to the breeding shed.
They’re also the ones who, when their charges are unexpectedly euthanized far too young, sometimes have to find out through Facebook.
My friend Sarah Lauren Scott is one such caretaker. She was the unsung hero behind the career of $3 million pacer, Rocknroll Hanover, winner of the North America Cup, the Meadowlands Pace, and the Metro Pace in 2004 and 2005, and she was shocked to hear, last week, that her horse of a lifetime had suffered a fatal bout of colic. He was only 11.
There were lots of articles published about Rocknroll Hanover’s demise which dissected his racing talents and featured quotes from his owners and the management at the breeding farm where he stood at stud. This story, however, is about a woman and the horse she loved. It’s an expanded version of a column I wrote about her memories of ‘Rock’, for the United States Trotting Association. The photos are from Sarah’s collection on Facebook.
Of all the people who were shocked and saddened by Thursday, March 14’s news of the untimely death of champion pacer and sire, Rocknroll Hanover (Western Ideal – Rich N Elegant), no-one felt the loss more keenly than the young woman who experienced his two-year odyssey at the very top echelon of the sport first-hand.
Sarah Lauren Scott, of Milton, Ontario, was the caretaker for the burly colt she called Rock, from almost the beginning of his two-year-old campaign, down to his final triumph in the Breeders Crown as a sophomore, and remembers every detail as if it was yesterday.
“I had just started working for Brett Pelling in 2004, and he told me there were two horses coming up from New Jersey – a free-for-all trotter, and a ‘wild two-year-old’,” Scott recalls. “He gave me the choice of which one I could take on. I said I’d leave it up to him, and I ended up with the two-year-old. The reason everyone considered him wild was that he had gotten loose at the Meadowlands, destroyed the paddock, and stopped the whole fourth race.
“When Rock first came off the truck, I thought, ‘He doesn’t look as bad as they were saying’. He was kind of awkward because he looked like two different animals – very heavy in front, but lean and athletic behind. But he didn’t act like a two-year-old. He was actually quite educated and well-mannered.”
Well-mannered might be a relative term, for Rocknroll Hanover did have one worrisome habit: he spent a lot of time on his hind legs. So much so, in fact, that his new caretaker soon decided that it was safer to lead him with a 30-foot longe line clipped to his halter, rather than a standard leadshank.
But she insists, “His rearing was never nasty. He was just playing. I just preferred to be overprepared.”
With just two baby races under his belt, yielding a first and an eighth place finish, the inexperienced Rocknroll Hanover made his Canadian debut in a two-year-old condition dash at Woodbine, after a single qualifier at nearby Mohawk. He finished a respectable but hardly dazzling third in that August effort, which was enough for Pelling to enter the colt in the following week’s elimination for the $1,211,800 Metro Pace. Once again Rock stuck well enough with his peers to finish third and squeak into the final.
Given his lukewarm efforts to that point, it’s no surprise that the colt left the gate in the September 4 Metro Pace final a lightly regarded 31-1. History, of course, records that Rocknroll Hanover, in rein to Brian Sears, rode the helmet of Ron Pierce and the considerably more experienced Village Jolt, and then powered past them in the stretch to prevail by a length in a then-world-record 1:49.4.
“That was pretty special,” says Scott, simply. “All the talk had been about Village Jolt. We just felt lucky to have even gotten into the final.”
Rocknroll Hanover turned three in a snowy paddock in Ontario. “He came out in the spring looking like a hairy teddy bear with a big belly,” says Scott. “But it didn’t take him long to get fit.” He began his sophomore campaign with a New Jersey Sires Stakes win and from there quickly became a superstar, winning both the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup, and the $1,000,000 Meadowlands Pace.
“It was a dream come true for me to be there at the Meadowlands Pace with a real contender. He had earned everyone’s respect by then, all the other trainers. Everyone knew he was something special.”
Soon Rock had legions of admirers. “I really enjoyed sharing him with people,” Scott remembers. “I’d bring him over to the fence so he could be admired and people would pet his nose. They were just in awe of him, and he was always a gentleman … I never had to worry about him doing anything dirty.
“He was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, no question. I can’t say enough about how smart and classy he was.”
Scott established a strict routine with her charge, which included, after he suffered an episode of tying up, either early-evening turnout or hand-grazing. That became the pair’s quality time together, when the shedrow was quiet. “I’d park around the back and turn my car radio on. It was usually either Andrea Bocelli, or Sinatra. And it would just be me, Rock, and my dog, every night. That was our downtime from the spotlight. It’s probably my favourite memory of him.
“You know, I was young, and I had moved down to the States by myself to work with him during his three-year-old campaign. So he was my family. I did a lot of growing up. I learned to stand up for myself.”
The only disappointment in Rocknroll Hanover’s career was the 2005 Little Brown Jug (won by P Forty Seven). Scott almost shudders at the memory even now.
“That was an absolute heartbreak on a lot of levels,” she says. “First of all it was extremely hot. He was in the last heat and had to leave from the six hole. A shoe slid off the side of his foot and I saw his head come up and I could just tell he was sore. We had to get him reshod between heats. Very stressful. It was hard for me to send him back out because I knew he wasn’t 100%, but there had been so much build-up all week … fans coming to take pictures of him, everyone expected him to win.”
Rocknroll Hanover finished third in the Jug final, and the experience soured Scott on heat racing, but fortunately the colt bounced back beautifully. “That was good management,” she says. “He was as fresh at the end of the year as he had been at the beginning, and that’s part of Brett’s genius.”
Rocknroll Hanover ended his racing career with a bang, capturing his Breeders Crown division at the Meadowlands by one and a quarter lengths over Leading X Ample, and retiring with a bankroll in excess of $3 million.
Scott made her way back to Ontario, having had her fill of the spotlight for the time being, but she has kept close tabs on her favourite’s offspring and has gone out of her way to work with them when possible. “I took care of World Of Rocknroll for a little while, and I paddocked Pet Rock last year for the Confederation Cup.
“People say he stamped his babies, but to me, they’re all very different. I keep looking for my Rock in all of them, and I see pieces of him, but I haven’t seen the whole package yet. Look at Rock N Roll Heaven – they used to call him ‘little hot dog’. And then there’s Put On A Show, who’s so dark and sleek and aggressive. I follow them all very closely.”
The depth of Scott’s dedication to Rocknroll Hanover is also evident by the collection of memorabilia she treasures. “I kept everything,” she confesses. “I have numbers, blankets, saddle pad numbers with his name on them. I have his yearling halter. And I have the last set of shoes he wore, from the Breeders Crown.
“I last saw him in 2011, and I never imagined that he would be gone so soon. I’m just devastated … I couldn’t even have talked to you about this yesterday. But I’m glad I kept these things now. They’re all very special to me.”
Normally, I don’t use this blog to highlight local politics. How relevant is it going to be, really, to a Gentle Reader in St. Vincent (I got two hits from the island a few days ago — hi guys!) or Croatia (where I seem to have a regular reader or two)?
Here’s why I’m making an exception. I make at least a percentage of my living, writing for racing magazines. I cover both Thoroughbred racing and harness racing (which is why I like the banner photo at the top of the blog — Standardbred racing under saddle, while only a novelty thing at present here in North America, strikes me as a fun hybrid that more-or-less sums up what I do. Neither fish nor fowl, in other words). I’ve even dabbled in Quarter Horse racing coverage, also a fringe activity here in Ontario, and Trottingbred pony racing in Bermuda (harness racing with the added benefit of cute ponies in lots of outrageous colours!). I’ve worked at the track, done lots of exercise riding, and most of my own mounts are refugees from the racing industry. All of which to say, I’m invested.
I’ll make the background to the following article as brief as I can manage. Some of it you can glean from the article itself: my home province of Ontario once had a sweetheart deal, a win-win-win, with the provincial government, in which its 17 racetracks accommodated rooms full of pinging, flashing, gurgling slot machines, in exchange for a percentage of the revenue, which they invested in purses for racing. In exchange for hosting another gambling option which essentially cannibalized its betting revenue, the racetracks got fatter purses, which attracted better quality horses, made it possible to offer world-class stakes races … and the local municipalities which hosted each racetrack also got a share of the cut for infrastructure, road improvement, whatever.
The Ontario government made out like a bandit on this deal, too, to the tune of $1.1 billion a year — about a 70% return on what it gave the racing industry. This was money which was available to be invested in health care, education, roads, parks, anything our little semi-socialist Canadian hearts desired.
The Slots At Racetracks program came about because most Ontario cities didn’t want slots parlours in their urban centres. Racetracks, which tend to be located on the city fringes or in rural locales, were ideal — and they already had the electricity, the parking lots, the washrooms (and the property taxes) that the body which governs gambling, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corp (OLG), didn’t want to invest in. It was so wildly successful that in the 14 years since it was instituted, Ontario became one of the most envied racing jurisdictions in North America, particularly on the Standardbred side. The Ontario Sires Stakes program was the envy of the continent, stallions were flocking in to stand at stud here, we had the richest harness race offered anywhere (the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup, for three-year-old pacing colts), and basically the whole thing was bad-ass, apart from the fact that actual interest in live racing, from a spectator’s point of view, has been waning for a while. Empty grandstands have been more the norm than the exception, and yes, that needed to be addressed … but in terms of the quality of the product, the contentment level of the horsepeople, and the health of the breeding industry, there was little to criticize about Ontario racing.
But we have a provincial government which has managed to bury itself in debt, with one snafu after another. Obscenely expensive power plants which get half-built and abandoned — check. An air ambulance service which purchases dizzyingly over-priced helicopters which don’t even allow EMTs enough room in which to perform CPR on the hapless passengers — check. An eHealth system which gives its CEO an outrageous salary and Prince-Rainier-style perks, and delivers practically nothing — check. I could go on. So long story short, they’re buried in scandal and up to their yin-yang in deficit, so they have to be seen to be cutting something. And horseracing … well, it doesn’t have very good optics anyway, right? It’s seedy and corrupt and they break down all the pretty horses, and no-one’s really going to miss it.
So without any consultation with the 55,000-odd people who make a living, either directly or indirectly, from racing in this province, nor with any of racing’s governing bodies, nor anyone in the Ministry of Agriculture who might have known squat about racing, they yanked the rug out from under the industry in February, 2012, by announcing they were cancelling the SARP program and instead would be investing in building huge, foreign-owned full-service casinos in urban locations across the province. Never mind that the existing five or six casinos in Ontario all lose money. It’s going to be a much better strategy, and we’re tired of “subsidizing” horseracing to the tune of $345 million a year which is taking money away from hospitals and all-day kindergarten for our wee ones.
It was a shameful degree of spin which elicited howls from the racing industry right from day one. Suddenly discretionary spending on slots machines, a portion of which went to racing, had become the Ontario government propping up our game. The word “subsidy” was gleefully seized upon by the mainstream media, and racing instantly became the bad guy, taking flu shots from the tender little arms of babes. And never mind that by hosting slots parlours, racing contributed billions to exactly those programs, far more than was invested.
Not to mention never mind the grooms who are in the barn by 6 a.m. every day, shovelling shit and hosing down horses and cleaning harness, and then packing up the trailer most afternoons and driving for hours in order to race into the late hours of the night … all for staggeringly less than minimum wage. Those are the real faces of racing, folks, not the Frank Stronachs of the world.
Anyway, you can imagine the fallout. Basically, without the SARP, Ontario racing was a dead duck. The fall yearling sales were a bloodbath. Stallions who had barely set up shop, packed up and left again. People started giving horses away right, left, and centre, or shipping the less productive ones for meat. Cases of neglect multiplied as people ran out of money to feed their horses. Drivers and jockeys headed south of the border where they could be better assured of making a living. And Windsor Raceway, once one of the most vibrant harness racing ovals in North America — and a place where I worked as a groom, back in the day — locked its doors and became a ghost town, with others soon to follow.
Fast forward almost a year and the Liberal premier who wreaked all this havoc has resigned and slunk away. The new leader of his party, Kathleen Wynne, has been in power a couple of weeks. As she had also taken on the portfolio of the Ministry of Agriculture, Ontario horsemen hoped against hope that she had some interest in rural Ontario and in the entirely avoidable plight of racing industry participants.
So when there was an eleventh-hour announcement late this week, of an “invited media only” press conference to be held at one of Ontario’s racetracks on Friday, with the shiny new premier …. well.
Below is my report of the gulf between dreams and reality. The decent thing to do would have been to admit the whole plan had been ill-thought-out and a huge fucking mistake, but one can’t expect expressions of culpability from politicians, I guess.
I wrote this piece for the United States Trotting Association, for whom I crank out an irregular column on Canadian harness racing news. (Search my name on the site if you’d like to read some of them.) But the USTA preferred to go with the more diplomatically worded press release. Hence, this article has no home. Rather than have Friday be a completely wasted effort on my part, I present it here, for what it’s worth.
FROM THE GREAT WHITE NORTH: SAME NEWS, DIFFERENT DAY FOR ONTARIO
With the surprise announcement on Thursday afternoon (March 7, 2013) of a press conference to be held the following day at Elora, Ontario’s Grand River Raceway, with new provincial premier Kathleen Wynne, the hearts of Ontario horsemen got an unexpected jolt.
Within hours, the rumour mill was hinting that perhaps the ruling Liberals had finally crunched the numbers, and realized that their decision, a year ago, to summarily cancel the wildly successful Slots At Racetracks program (SARP) which had pumped $345 million per year into the racing industry and $1.1 billion into provincial coffers, had been … well, stupid.
Local news outlets reported that SARP was about to be restored, ending 12 months of anxiety, uncertainty, and anger for some 55,000 people whose livelihoods hung in the balance.
Alas, wishful thinking couldn’t make it so. The news delivered from the well-lit podium on the second floor of the Grand River grandstand, did almost nothing to dispel that uncertainty.
Premier Wynne, who took over the Liberal leadership from the retreating Dalton McGuinty a month ago, also took on the portfolio of the Minister of Agriculture … so the concerns of rural Ontario have clearly been on her mind to some degree.
But she continues to buy into the essential fallacy created by her predecessor, and perpetuated by the three-member “Transition Board” appointed to assess the state of Ontario horseracing after the decision had been made to pull the plug, that racing was not sustainable in this province as it stood, that it was in need of shrinkage, and that the revenue-sharing agreement which was carved out 14 years ago to compensate racetracks for hosting slots parlours, was a “subsidy”.
In fact, Ontario stood until a year ago as one of the most successful racing jurisdictions in North America, if not the most successful. With an exemplary Sires Stakes program and 17 tracks, many of which operated year-round, Ontario was a racing destination that was the envy of many.
The Liberals have apparently never heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And a year later, the damage has been done.
Wynne’s speech on Friday, March 8 to the media offered little more than a photo op of her cuddling with two ‘ambassador’ horses from the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society. In terms of substance, there was little. She assured her audience that Ontario racing will survive, but will have to become smaller, delivered some platitudes about how rental agreements (to keep the doors of the existing slots parlours open) have been reached with most of the surviving 14 tracks, and that “transition agreements” had been reached with five of them – six, if you count Woodbine and Mohawk as separate ovals (they are both owned by the Woodbine Entertainment Group).
Some of the other Ontario racetracks are still in negotiations, with Rideau Carleton (in Ottawa) and the now-shuttered Windsor Raceway refusing to play ball.
Wynne steadfastly refused to talk money, deflecting repeatedly when asked by the media whether the transitional funding – now truly a government subsidy – would approach previous levels provided by the revenue-sharing agreement. And the timeframe of three years she provided for these transitional agreements, does nothing for Ontario breeders, who work on a five-year cycle and have been perhaps the hardest hit of all the industry segments.
“We are continuing to work with the transition panel, to integrate racing with the provincial gaming strategy,” she reiterated, to the dismay of most of the racing media who understand that the ill-informed transition panel is a big part of the problem.
“And we want to ensure racetracks have access to revenues from new gaming applications.
“We want to make sure that there aren’t enormous unintended consequences as the industry evolves,” she concluded.
While it’s of some small comfort that the government now recognizes there might be consequences, one can’t help but feel as if they pulled the plug and only now are making a half-hearted effort to save the baby who is circling the drain with the bathwater. The consequences are here, unintended or not, and Friday’s non-announcement, unfortunately, will do virtually nothing to change that.
The reason is simple enough: I’ve been useless.
Such is the nature of the writing biz these days – for me, at least – that I have stooped (and stooped and stooped) to a relatively humiliating alternative in an effort to help pay the rent. I’ve been mucking stalls at two different local barns. And by that I mean, in addition to my own.
I could put an officious spin on this and say I have taken on positions as a barn manager. But let’s not obfuscate. I’m shovelling shit. (Okay, and throwing hay bales around, scrubbing water buckets, sweeping floors, and, in the case of one of the two barns, spending quite a lot of time playing Molly Maid with a swiffer.)
Lots of horse-crazy teenagers shovel shit in exchange for being in proximity with the producers of said product. For pocket money, in exchange for riding lessons, to help work off the board for their own horse. It’s something of a rite of passage, and I did my share of it in my misspent youth. For a winter or two in my undergrad years, I groomed four horses for a fairly prominent trainer at Windsor Raceway. Grooming Standardbreds (and I’m assuming here that this hasn’t changed much in the quarter century since I was so employed) entails mucking stalls, grooming the horses, harnessing them for jogging and then unharnessing them afterwards, giving them baths, wrapping legs and/or blanketing, and lots and lots of cleaning harness and sweeping floors. (All of which is ever so much more fun when it’s -30 C.)
I hate sweeping floors. But hey, it’s part of the gig.
Doing this sort of thing does instil a certain work ethic. Which is something a lot of youth are sadly short on – so it’s a good thing. It also cements a sense of responsibility for the living things for which you’re caring, and that’s invaluable. But it also creates something that the rest of the world views as something of an imbalance. The average horseperson may be an indifferent housekeeper who can happily look the other way at clumps of mud on the floor, tufts of equine, canine, and feline fur on the furniture, piles of stinky saddle pads and blankets and a general eau du cheval (consisting of equal parts equine and human sweat, a hint of ammonia, and the rather more pleasant base notes of leather and saddle soap) on, well, everything … but that same ambivalent domestic engineer is more than likely to hold her barn to a far higher standard. I wouldn’t necessarily say you should eat off the floor of most barns … but you probably could, at least before the horses come back inside for the night.
I learned a long time ago that there’s no point in doing a half-assed job of any of this, because somehow, with horses, if you do you just end up with five times as much work the next day. And it’s not like horses give you a day off from shovelling shit. They are herbivorous fibre-consumers. They pretty much dedicate themselves to producing the stuff like it was their life’s work.
Still, I had kind of hoped that I had reached a point in my life where any stall-mucking I did was by choice, not by profession. Not exactly for pleasure, I guess, but as part of the package of owning my own horses, part of what I signed on for by having the darling critters in my backyard instead of at some posh boarding stable.
But here I am, with a couple of degrees and a little handful of journalism awards, a bit of (ahem) big-fish-small-pond street cred, not to mention my national coaching certification, and a background in public relations, marketing, editing, and equine nutrition … and I am wielding a muck fork six mornings a week to help make ends meet.
The vagaries of job-hunting have become so baffling that I’ve pretty much thrown down my weapons in utter defeat. A couple of months ago, for example, the Ontario Equestrian Federation advertised that it was looking for a communications coordinator. I ask you, in all seriousness, how could I be any more qualified for that?? It wasn’t a matter of my having outrageous salary expectations or blowing the interview …. I didn’t even get an interview. Or acknowledgement of any description, come to that. I can only assume — since I am assured by someone in the know that it was a Real Job, not one filled internally nor cancelled due to budget cuts — that I must have inadvertently pissed off someone at the OEF, perhaps in a past life since I cannot seem to recall such an incident in this one.
If I wasn’t such a goshdarn cockeyed optimist, I might just find it deflating.
The worst of the mucking thing is that I am sooooooo not a morning person. Never have been. Totally screwed up circadian rhythms. Which my own horses understand completely.
The horses at my two other barns, apparently, not so much. They all expect me to show up at a truly ungodly hour of the morning. It’s bloody killing me.
I have never really understood why horsepeople seem to think horses need to be fed breakfast in the pitch-black of pre-dawn. It’s just one of those idiotic, hideous, fucktarded traditions. (Or is that just me?) Admittedly, at this time of year, when the humidity makes both humans and horses feel like they’re dog-paddling breathlessly through the atmosphere, there’s an argument to be made both for turning the beasties out in their paddocks early, while the temps are still relatively humane, and for getting the most backbreaking of the barn chores out of the way then, too … but my body and my brain still protest about getting up at an hour more appropriate for a morning-show radio host. I am not adjusting well.
It might have something to do with my being 49, I ‘spose….
I do know that being 49 has everything to do with the fact that, by the time I am finished with the morning barn chores at either barn (I do one place on weekdays, the other on weekends), I am pretty much finished, period.
As in knackered. Fried. Trashed. Destroyed. Like tits on a bull for the rest of the day. Unable either to shit or wind my watch. About as helpful as a screen door on a submarine. Akin to a hedgehog in a balloon factory.
As evidenced by my exceedingly feeble and pathetic collection of euphemisms here.
It’s a problem, since mucking stalls (surprise!) doesn’t actually pay all that brilliantly. It’s only morning work, and the theory is that I then have the rest of the day to meet all my writing obligations, generate new assignments, and keep up with all the other freelance stuff that, combined with the grunt work, will pay my rent. Great theory. But I’m finding the execution is … well, something of a struggle.
When I get home, I need to have a nap. Then I try to rally enough to have a shower or otherwise scrape off the filth, do yet another load of reeking laundry, and answer some e-mail. Most days, that’s about as far as I get.
I am not doing terribly well in terms of completing any of the paid writing. Much less the blog. Which of course is weighing rather heavily on the brain. I’m hoping I will adapt. (Of course, I am also hoping that all of these extra trips to the manure pile will lead to some excess poundage effortlessly melting off my frame, and tragically, that doesn’t seem to be materializing either.)
Recently, the Canadian government announced some revisions to the employment insurance (EI) program (formerly the unemployment insurance, or UI, program, but hey, that was such a downer). It decreed that you now could not just wait to accept a job which was in your field and for which you were qualified (at least not while you were collecting pogy). You had to take just about anything that came along, even if you were over-qualified (or completely unqualified), massively underpaid, and totally disrespected. Critics argued that this would just create a downward spiral in employment, with each succeeding position being a little meaner, a little more demoralizing, a lot less well-paid, until all of us were working in pointless, dead-end positions with zero benefits and miserable hours, and all 30 million of us opted to fling ourselves off bridges en masse.
Somehow I’ve managed to put myself in a similar death spiral. It’s not like I don’t appreciate the value of honest, necessary work. It’s not that I don’t like being in barns … clearly I do. It’s not that I’m afraid of callused hands, an aching back, filthy hair matted to my head like steel wool, a farmer tan, or arms all scratched up to ratshit by slinging hay bales. Nope.
I guess I just figured at this point in my life that I’d already paid my dues with pitchfork, shovel, and broom. That I’d moved past having to do that stuff for other people’s horses. And I’m having a bit of a hard time getting over myself.
The National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) has decreed that it is “Words Matter Week 2012“.
NAIWE has posted a “Blog Challenge”, the prize for which is an Amazon gift card which is more than likely not useable by non-Americans.
So why would I bother responding to the five daily blog questions in the Blog Challenge? Well, it: a) beats coming up with a blog topic of my own; and b) could be an interesting exercise in seeing whether I can remain sincere, earnest, and non-snarky (my money’s on ‘no’).
Ready, gang? Of course you are. I can see you’re on the edge of your seats. Here are the Qs:
Writers craft words into memorable phrases, stories, poems and plays. What writers make your heart sing? Why?
Irving Layton‘s poetry is unabashedly randy. You can imagine him flinging off his khakis and running naked through a park, little Irving flapping merrily in the breeze, just for the sheer helluvit, and that amazed and tickled me when I was an undergrad. Who knew CanLit could be naughty?
Michael Ondaatje is hard wading, but if you’re in the right frame of mind, you can submerse yourself completely in his imagery. Like swimming through the most gloriously textured jello. You might only get through six pages in a sitting, but they will stick with you for days afterwards.
But I have to admit that I seek out cleverness in much of what I read. That’s why the late Douglas Adams is still top of my list of ‘people living or dead I’d invite to my ultimate dinner party’. You can read Hitchhiker’s 30 times and it will still give you the giggles … his turn of phrase was just that good, his logic just that twisted. I mean: “Here, put this fish in your ear.” “What? Ewww!” “Oh, come on, it’s only a little one.”
Pure genius in words of two syllables or less.
Cynthia Heimel, the American queen of snark, is another one, and a personal role-model. When I dial the snark up to 11, I try to channel her.
Tuesday, March 6
What word, said or unsaid, has or could change your life? How?
Okay, the editor in me immediately wants to change this to “What word, said or unsaid, has changed, or could change, your life?”
I mean, it’s supposed to be the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors.
But I digress.
Should I be uber-obvious and say “You won the lottery”? Nah, I’m better than that. (Though I really, really think it would rank up there in terms of life-changing events, and I would like to humbly encourage the universe to consider my worthiness …)
So how about “reason”, because that’s what rules my life. Or at least I attempt to let it rule my life. Reason, as in rejecting superstition (the preceding paragraph, ahem, notwithstanding). Reason, as in refusing to let fear rule. Reason, as in not taking anything on faith, and not accepting faith as a virtue — at least, not the faith that demands unwavering, unquestioning acceptance of things that make no sense. Reason, as in understanding the difference between anecdotal evidence and repeatable fact. Reason, as in question everything. And reason, as in presenting both (or many) sides of an argument or issue in my writing, with as little bias as I can possibly muster, and letting my readership make up its own mind. Preferably with its critical thinking skills fully engaged. This, as I see it, is what journalists are mandated to do.
I was not always reasonable. I had to do some growing up first to understand the difference between doctrine and truth.
Wednesday, March 7
Communication breaks down when words are misused. What is the funniest or worst breakdown you’ve ever observed?
Well, there was the flyer from the local garage promising “complete insurrections” of my truck’s engine …
And one from my editor at the Canadian Sportsman, a magazine which focuses on harness racing (in which horses move at the trot or pace) and thus rarely talks about any of the other gears an equine might display. In an article about retired racehorses going on to second careers as riding horses, said editor used the word “cantor” throughout. I am unclear as to the religious significance of this. (Should I out this editor as my brother? Nah, better not.)
Thursday, March 8
What person in your life helped you understand the importance of choosing words carefully? What would you say to them if you met them today?
If I’m a grammar Nazi, I’m mere infantry compared to my mother, who would probably not be in the least amused to be compared to the head of the Gestapo. (Fortunately Mom doesn’t venture onto the Interwebz, having developed something of a phobia for mousing.) Throughout my childhood, and to this day, no grammatical error ever goes unnoticed or uncorrected by her eagle ear. She is a devotee of the English language and abhors its abuse. In the process of this constant and unrelenting policing, she created two career journalists. And so at some point soon (because as I say, she will not see this) … I’ll thank her for never giving me an inch, and I’ll do it in person.
Friday, March 9
If you had to eliminate one word or phrase from the English language, what would it be? Why?
I have to pick just one?
Personal pet peeves include “orientate”, “hopefully” (which is a perfectly good word, used extremely imperfectly), and “irregardless”. That people don’t get the difference between lay and lie drives me nuts, too, though I don’t suppose you can really eliminate either one from the language …
As for phrases, “It is what it is” irritates the snot out of me. It’s meaningless! But the vast majority of cliches make my skin crawl, truth be told (see what I did there?).
English is a malleable magpie of a tongue. It borrows freely from more (and less) romantic languages and scripts, and changes with the tides … you only have to read a bit of Shakespeare, or even Dickens, to see how much it has transformed in a few short centuries. So while we can try to prevail upon it with rules and admonish those who butcher it, the reality is that it’s impossible to be too unforgiving. What you hate today will probably be either gone, or gospel, in a decade or two.
(Did I achieve the right mix of snark and sincerity? Do tell. And l’chaim.)
Just when I was starting to feel just a smidge optimistic, someone sent me this link, which doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but it’s depressing seeing it in print (again): Journalists Don’t Make Money.
That said, I thought I’d post something positive about my profession: I did not loathe the Royal Winter Fair this year.
Maybe that had to do with the parking passes my friend Michelle magically came up with for me — it’s amazing how not having to cough up $15 per night lightens the mood when you’re always worrying about where the Ramen noodles are coming from. Also must’ve chosen more humane shoes this year, because while my feet were sore each night by the time I hobbled back to my underground truck, I escaped without actual blisters and the band-aid collection in my purse remained undisturbed.
I even managed (knock wood, in case it’s still lurking in my alveoli) to escape the Royal Flu, which is the usual consequence of spending 10 days under the same roof with 30,000 infectious people. My immune system has been kind this year.
And I accomplished most of what I planned to accomplish while I was there. Including buying lovely goat cheese with cranberry port sauce at a discount price, which is an annual objective. (It’ll make a nice change from the Ramen.)
Though filing one’s stories on the same night for an on-line publication is kind of a grind (I remember back in the good old days, we used to actually party a bit at the Royal, at the end of the night …. those days are long gone!), there’s something satisfying about seeing your report in (virtual) print the next morning. And about knowing the deadline’s been taken care of and isn’t looming over your head anymore (though the next one is, of course!).
In the midst of my daily Royal coverage, I was also trying to juggle a number of harness racing assignments and some agricultural ones (some Royal-related, some not). That I have any hair left is a minor miracle … not that I’m ever going to complain about having too much work. It’s vastly preferable to not having enough. It would just be nice if the powers that be could spread it out a little. But I got it all done, more or less — including one major article that I literally pulled OUT of my ASS in the course of one day, little does my editor know — and that also gives me a tiny little sense of accomplishment.
So long story short, I restrained myself from going postal on anyone this year, scraped together enough money each day not to starve, and got a new pair of riding gloves and a cheap halter for my gelding, Spike, in the trade fair. (Yes, I went nuts.) I got to hang out with Mark Todd (We Are Not Worthy), saw a few friends and did not really have to suffer much of the company of the few colleagues I’m not that fond of, didn’t freeze my velvet-clad tush in the warm-up ring for a change, and indulged in an apple dumpling and a cinnamon bun (ahem, not on the same night), both of which are Things Emblematic of the Royal and Must Be Consumed Regardless of the Heart-Stopping Calorie Counts.
Exhausting. But relatively good.
I write a column on equine health for the Canadian Sportsman, a harness-racing magazine with a relatively storied history (it claims to be the oldest continuously-published magazine in the Great White North, though its mandate, as the name indicates, may have veered slightly from the original concept).
Following the example of the Sportsman, my column has run continuously over the last 286 issues. It would have been more except prior to that (um, 1998?) no-one had asked me.
The Sportsman used to publish on a biweekly schedule; a couple of years ago, it throttled back to every three weeks. Still, that’s a fair number of issues. I know, because I’ve lugged the archives along with me every time I’ve moved, which has been fairly frequently over the past five or six years.
Oh, for an intern who could scan all of these colourfully oversized magazines and save my columns as PDFs on one nice, neat external drive …
Anyway. One of the issues (publishing pun, sorry) with writing an equine health column for nearly 300 editions is that you start to worry about running out of Diseases of the Week to write about. Go ahead, ask me. Colic? Did it. Laminitis? Oh yes. Salmonella, equine protozoal myelitis, rhodococcus pneumonia, equine herpes virus, rabies, palmar foot pain (ex-navicular syndrome), equine polysaccharide storage myopathy, sarcoids, botulism, alopecia …. uh-huh.
The only ones I can’t write about are the ones that are unlikely ever to affect racehorses, which are of course the Sportsman‘s focus. So maladies of draft horses and minis are, sadly, excluded. Awww.
If my latest column strikes you as scraping the bottom of the barrel with “cholangiohepatitis”, well, there might be some small truth to that. But it’s a real disease. Was even in the news this past spring. Look it up. (Hint: Search “Uncle Mo“.)
Fortunately, horses are endlessly self-destructive critters, so there’s almost always something new and weird coming down the pike. Or artery. Or colon. Whatever.