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
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.
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.