Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the tag “Ontario”

Another Diversion: Wellington-Waterloo Hunter Pace

bentley and spike wwhuntMy student Sarah Cuthbertson has saved me the trouble of writing a blog post about this. Here’s her rundown of the Wellington-Waterloo Hunt’s fall Hunter Pace, in Puslinch, Ontario, with lots and lots of helmet-cam video. I’m on Spike (the bay) and Sarah’s horse Cricklewood, aka Bentley, is the gray.

Eat Sleep Ride Repeat

On Sunday September 13, Karen agreed to lug me and Bentley out to Puslinch, Ontario to take part in a Hunter Pace put on by Wellington Waterloo Hunt.

For those of you who are thinking “what in the world?!”, let me explain what it is without screwing up any of the details.  It’s an event that is supposed to simulate a hunt – but without the hounds, or the actual hunting.  Royally confused yet?

They laid out a trail through forest and fields, marked with ribbons and signs.  You are supposed to travel at a pace similar to what you would do if you were at a real hunt, the signs set the scene and gave you clues as to how to pace certain areas.  Earlier in the day, the hunt master will have ridden the trail, and decided on an optimum time, and whoever gets closest to the optimum…

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Ten Things About the Toronto Pan Am Games

panam-horses-asideNow that it’s all over except for the continuing self-congratulatory smugness (Toronto’s, I mean, which might or might not be justified — the actual numbers rating its success have not yet been released) … I figured I’d better recount my experience at the 2015 Pan American Games for posterity.  This may, in fact, be practically the only place in which I do so, assignments from magazines and newspapers having been discouragingly thin on the ground.  So much for home court advantage.

Watch this space for some separate blog posts on each of the equestrian disciplines (dressage, eventing, and showjumping), which are the only three sports I got to see in the three-week run of the Games.  Yup.  Despite my best efforts, I completely failed to get to any of the other venues for which I had media access, much less any of the concerts and other entertainments.  The last Pan Am Games I attended was Winnipeg, in 1999, and I had a blast going to free concerts, jazz clubs, and outdoor theatre performances in the evenings while I was there (and favourably revised my opinion of Winnipeg in the process).  I guess the difference this time was that I was trying to fit the Pan Ams around all the regular demands of my life — teaching riding lessons, getting my own horses fed and worked, doctor’s appointments, truck breakdowns, and so forth.  Somehow, the hassle of making it all the way into downtown Toronto from my home base in the boonies, never quite seemed feasible.  I am bummed about having missed Colin James though.

Anyway.  For what it’s worth, here are some random bits of snark about the Toronto Pan Am Games.  In no particular order.

argentine boots-06851. OVERBLING:  The medal for sheer overbling has to go to the South American dressage riders, especially the women.  If there was a location where they could legally place Swarovski crystals, they did so, unreservedly.  From their hair bows to their helmets to the tops of their shiny black patent boots, to their gloves, their horses’ braids and flyveils and browbands and, yep, even the cantles of their saddles, there was really no such thing as too much bling.  The places where the press were allowed to photograph were too far from the ring to tell for sure, but I strongly suspect that those who had experience with Rio-style carnival makeup may even have had bling on their eyelids.  In general, the South Americans put the Northern hemisphere riders to shame in the stylin’ department — the Argentinian eventers, for example, had the most drool-worthy boots (or maybe they were half-chaps) in their flag’s sky-blue-and-white colours.  (They also had way better music for their dressage freestyles.)

(Thought I might as well share the Spanish version!)

2. EMBRACING THE CLICHES:  I had to love the Puerto Rican dressage rider who rode his freestyle to selections from “West Side Story”.  I confess, I can never hear an announcer say the words “Puerto Rico” without a little echo of Rita Moreno in my head … but you have to figure that they’re sick to death of it in the actual country.  Took chutzpah, then (or cojones) to say, fukkit, I’m not going to cringe about it … I’m just going to go there, goddammit.  

Also, there was a Venezuelan showjumper named La Bamba.

beavers-0694Canada, however, was not to be outdone when it came to cliches.  From the moment I heard that the cross-country course for the eventing competition was going to feature, um, Canadiana … and that it was going to be built by Americans and shipped up on flatbeds from South Carolina … I dreaded the outcome.  The end result was not quite as bad as I’d feared, but it did have carved beavers, Canada geese, something that was supposed to be a keg of maple syrup, and a water jump that seemed to be a mishmash of every overworked Canuck icon the designers could toss together in a single obstacle.  It had one jump bristling with lobster pots, another with a stylized Toronto skyline on it, and a rather regrettable wooden grizzly with a salmon in its mouth … positioned at the base of a water trickle that I was reliably informed was supposed to represent Niagara grizzly-0691Falls.  WTF? doesn’t really cover it …

And then there was the showjumping course, which was slightly less horrifying, cliche-wise, though there was a plank jump emblazoned with an image of Mounties galloping straight at the observer with their lances in attack mode, something adorned with oversized cowboy boots and saloon doors (presumably representing Calgary), and another which mimicked a mountain pass in the Rockies with a railroad bridge spanning it.  The blocks on the top were little rail cars, so I guess when the blocks were knocked down (which was only a couple of times), it was (groan) a trainwreck.

3. THE MUSKOKA CHAIR DEBATE:  One of the more popular bits of decor in the showjumping ring was a pair of giant green Muskoka chairs, which every rider and groom on Facebook apparently felt compelled to climb up into for a selfie.  The Amalonso valdez PER muskoka chairs-2272ericans, however, kept erroneously referring to them as “Adirondack chairs”, and couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be Canadian about them.  Sources on the infallible interwebz disagree, of course, on the provenance of the Muskoka chair vs. the Adirondack, but at least some of them will tell you that the Muskoka chair is subtly different in its design and the curve of its back.  But both of them are bloody difficult to lever yourself out of, fuglyparticularly the eight-foot kind.

4. FUGLY:  Is it just me, or is this sculpture, which was squatting in the Caledon Equestrian Park, fugly as hell?  Maybe not, since people seemed compelled to pose in front of it on a daily basis for even more selfies.

Much more egregious were the outfits inflicted upon the hapless presenters-of-medals-and-stuffed-toys.  Can you say, “shapeless beach cover-up”?  I think back to the presenters at the Beijing Olympics, who looked utterly stunning, and I try to imagine what the Pan Am people were thinking when they approved these horrid, droopy, waist-less, sweatpants-gray monstrosities.  Seriously, who looks good in this fabric?  One out of 10,000 supermodels, that’s who.  And to top it off, each dress was cut at exactly the right length to flatter no-one in this universe.  These girls were fugly dresses-9907putting on a brave face, but personally I would have been mortified to have turned up in public in one of these.  Hashtag fashion fugliness.

5. FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE:  By most ratings, Canada is not a Third World country.  But we do have an alarming predilection for re-inventing perfectly good wheels.  In the instance of the Pan Am Games, that meant that procedures which have been in place for major sports events around the world for years or even decades, were not necessarily in place here in Toronto.  Felt a little like we were either deliberately trying to represent as a provincial backwater, or we were stuck in some wormhole taking us back to 1985.

The official broadcaster for the Pan Am Games was the venerable CBC, which has long been of the opinion that showjumping is the only equestrian sport with any merit whatsoever.  (It’s a bit of a circular argument:  if North American spectators never get to see eventing or dressage or combined driving, how is it supposed to develop a following?  Numbers for broadcasts of Badminton or Burghley, in the UK, would seem to suggest there’s massive untapped appeal.  Ugh.)  So in its infinite wisdom, the Ceeb — which had sewn up exclusive video rights to absolutely everything — declined to show up for most of the equestrian events.  Which meant that we didn’t even have a video feed in the press tent, thus rendering the luxurious air conditioning in there useless because we had to be outside in order to see what was going on.  There was also no live scoring for the dressage, something that has been available for yonks at most major venues and should have been a no-brainer.

There were also all the usual communications fuck-ups that go with most major Games.  Nothing disastrous, just a lot of Orwellian, “you were allowed to walk past the warm-up rings yesterday, but today you were never allowed to do that and whoever told you that you were didn’t have the authority to do so and you should have known that” type stuff.  The rules for the media seemed to change on a daily basis, which inevitably led to a lot of bitching and frustration from those of us who were trying like hell to comply but couldn’t tell which rules were the real ones.  I’m willing to bet it was the same for the riders and grooms and assorted Team hangers-on from the various nations.

There was a concerted effort made to make these Games more accessible to various types of ‘new’ media (podcasters, bloggers, vloggers, web publications, and basically anyone who wasn’t the host broadcaster) and we were all told in no uncertain terms that we should not fuck it up because Toronto was being closely watched and that it would set a precedent for next year’s Rio Olympics and beyond.  But a lot of the attempts to make media access to the athletes more ‘casual’ just didn’t work.  At the Caledon Equestrian Park, they decided to forego the standard end-of-day press conferences with the top three riders, in favour of just having everyone swarm the poor souls in a noisy corner of the tent.  Later, when that turned out to be unsatisfactory, they tried to set up the athletes in the press seating at one end of the stands — next to the VIP seating, which at the end of each day was cranking up for another deafening party.  Most of what I got on my digital tape recorder was unintelligible, even when I had managed to elbow my way near the front.  But at least the poor riders had chairs to sit in.  Note to the Pan Am organizers:  if it ain’t broke …

6. PECULIAR PORCUPINE:  How a stylized porcupine in a baseball cap came to be the mascot of the Toronto Pan Am Games is another one of those inexplicable Dafuq? decisions.  If I were selecting a species of wildlife to represent Toronto, I’d think the obvious choice would be a raccoon.  (For the uninitiated, Toronto is overrun with urban raccoons, who hang out on people’s fire escapes and can finagle their way into any variety of garbage can ever pachi-2033designed by humans.  They are fearless, intimidatingly intelligent, and absolutely huge.)  I also have no idea where the name “Pachi” for the mascot originated.  I’d like to think perhaps it’s Ojibwe for porcupine or something, but that’s not bloody likely.  In any event, I was told that the strangely multi-coloured pointy bits on Pachi’s back numbered 41, to represent each of the countries involved in the Pan Am Games (is that countries eligible to compete, or actual number of countries which sent at least an athlete or two?  No clue there either).  Certainly there were fewer than 41 ‘quills’ on the little stuffed-toy versions of the mascot that medal-winning athletes were given in lieu of flowers.  (The looks on the faces of some of the South American guys who received them was priceless, though.)

7. JOURNALISTS BEHAVING BADLY:  As noted above, the CBC was the only body officially allowed to take video of the ‘field of play’ (ie. athletes actually competing in anything).  Other media outlets could take video interviews of athletes in the ‘mixed zone’ or outside the venue, and they could send out still photos of the action with a 30-minute embargo, but that was it.  At the beginning of the Games, that meant there were volunteers patrolling the stands trying to confiscate people’s iPads — though eventually that was given up as a lost cause.  The more people were told they couldn’t take video, the more affronted everyone got when it became apparent that the CBC had zero intention of even providing livestreaming or posting anything on-line after the fact.  YouTube became the place to go …

Still, I was unimpressed when I heard that two of the accredited Canadian journalists in our midst were blatantly taking video and posting it on their magazine’s website.  I can understand when paying spectators want to preserve a video clip of their nation’s representative(s) for their own enjoyment, but this was another deal entirely. Guess they missed that little (mandatory with your accreditation) lecture about spoiling it for the rest of us?  They very nearly got their accreditations yanked, and I would not have been the only one to tell them not to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.

8. ALL THE FAKENESS:  These giant mutant daisy things sprouted like triffids all over the dressage arena at the triffid-9051Caledon Equestrian Park.  They were at least five feet tall.  I told a couple of American journalists who asked that they were trilliums, the provincial flower of Ontario.  (There was actually a rather nice showjump which had real representations of trilliums; it showed up later.)

Another headscratcher:  the cross-country course, at nearby Will O’ Wind Farm, was decorated throughout with huge volumes of fake, plastic flowers.  And they looked really …. fake.  I dunno, you’re in Ontario, in July, in the middle of some of the richest waylon trilliums-1649farmland in North America … you couldn’t scare up some real flowers and foliage maybe?

9. THE SOUND OF SILENCE:  Did no-one tell the American fans that Canada is right next door?  As in, within driving distance for many?  At most events of this size, Canadian cheering sections are accustomed to being drowned out by loud and persistent, “USA! USA! USA!” chants and lots of screaming.  The American brand of patriotism can be a little oppressive, to be sure, but you have to admire their enthusiasm.  Maybe the Pan Am Games are just not on the American radar (though any event in which Murkans have this good a shot at lots of gold medals, you’d think would be very popular)?  Speculation aside, the Canadian riders were greeted by roars from the crowd and lots of flag-waving (it’s worth fans in stands-0281noting that the vast majority of the Canadian competitors, in all three disciplines, live within an hour of the Caledon Equestrian Park — it’s a very horsey neighbourhood).  But the Americans got mostly crickets, or polite smatterings of applause at best, and it was actually kinda sad.  They must have felt rather lost without their usual wall of noise.

10. KICKSTARTER?:  The next Pan Am Games is in Lima, Peru, in 2019.  Always wanted to go to Peru.  Send money, please?

(Please note:  pretty much all the images in this post, and the next few, are Copyright (c) Karen Briggs, 2015. pachi finish-2288 Using them anywhere else without my express permission, and fair payment, will quite possibly result in my hunting you down like a dog and making your life squeamishly unpleasant.  Thank you.)

Survival of the Stupidest

sleighGIFLast winter, we here in Ontario got off comparatively lightly.  It didn’t snow in any sort of serious way until after Xmas.

I knew we were gonna pay for that.

This year, my farm got hit with the first big snowstorm — completely un-forecast by The Weather Network and similar geniuses (just sayin’) — in mid-November.  Which is simply not kosher.  And I’m talking an honest-to-gawd 50 cm worth — over the tops of my boots and up to my knees in spots.  A week later, another 30 cm.

I’m sensing a trend.

As much as it’s part of the Canadian identity to pride oneself on one’s hardiness (and ability to steer out of a skid on black ice without ever having to put one’s double-double back in the cup holder) — and as much as we can’t help sniggering uncontrollably whenever we see news footage of civilization grinding to a halt as soon as there’s a dusting of white stuff on some American road (because pfffffttt, amateurs!) — the truth is that all the riders I know ’round here who can afford to, pack up house, horses, and hounds, and head to Aiken or Ocala for the winter months.

The rest of us poor sods? We tough it out.  And kvetch.  A lot.

four seasons 2Hey, it’s only four (cough) months of hellish horsekeeping.  How bad could it get?

(Truth be told, politics and religion have gotten so polarized and just plain creepy in the States that I wouldn’t set up shop there even if I could.  Fundamentalism weirds me out.  But I digress.)

Eight short weeks ago, Spike and I were competing at the fall Grandview Horse Trials, where we successfully upgraded to Pre-Training (go on, admit it, you’re impressed).  Considering it was accomplished in a biblical deluge, I was actually pretty impressed with us, especially Spike, who had never had to do a dressage test or jump in conditions like that.   The warm-up rings were literally under water, the competition areas no better, the heavens were just relentless, and while the cross-country course footing at Grandview is superlative, even it can only take so much.  Young Master Spike squelched around in his usual unflappable, good-natured way (my previous partner, Toddy, hated heavy rain with a passion and probably would have flattened his ears to his head jumpallthethingsand said, ‘Hell no, you crazy woman’), jumped clean in both stadium and cross-country despite the fences being a bit bigger than he’d been used to, and brought home a seventh-place ribbon, which under the circumstances was nothing to sneeze at.

He also demonstrated to me some hitherto-undiscovered scope — otherwise known as HOLY SHIT! fences.  There were two obstacles on cross-country where he clearly didn’t much like the look of the chopped-up footing at the base, so he simply left out a stride (or, um, five) and launched himself skyward.  Now, while my cardiovascular system could do without that kind of excitement, it did indicate that Spike’s been hiding his light under a bushel to some extent, and that’s useful information for the future, when the fences actually begin to require that sort of power.  Spike’s the type of horse who always seems to be at the limit of his athletic abilities, and then surprises you by kicking it up a notch … my personal little Stealth Bomber.  So there was that.  Overall, it was as positive an experience as I could have asked for considering the rain never let up for two fricking minutes, and I’m feeling good about going out at Pre-Training in the spring and upgrading to Training before the end of the season.

So that was eight weeks ago.  Eight weeks.  And now my semi-sleek event horse looks like a yak, Parker has already shredded three blankets (not on himself, but on his filly friend, two-year-old Trixie, because he appears to get off on the sound of ripping fabric), my metabolism has bottomed out and is packing on the pounds just in case this is the next Ice Age, and it’s abundantly clear that this is going to be one long sunuvabitch of a winter.

There are some tricks of the trade, when it comes to winter horsekeeping in Ontario.  (Yeah, I know, I’m probably going to hear the fingerfrom some folks in Edmonton, or Yellowknife, telling me I’ve got it ridiculously easy.  Winter one-upmanship is also part and parcel of the Canadian identity.)  I’ve actually been compiling ideas about winter stable management for about a decade now, because there’s a half-formed idea in my head to write a book called Northern Horsekeeping.  If you gentle readers think you’d actually purchase such a book, leave me a comment to that effect and maybe I’ll get motivated to get off my ass and finally pull that proposal and sample chapters together and send it off to some publishers …

Given that this nebulous book concept is still floating around my cranium, I probably shouldn’t give away all the best ideas in a blog post, but here are some random survival strategies for getting through four (or more) months of frost-bitten misery:

1. Designate your biggest, ugliest, heaviest winter coat the Barn Coat.  By the middle of the season it will completely reek, so designate another the Being Seen in Public Coat and keep it away from the barn.

2. The layering thing:  pretty obvious.  The tricky part:  finding layers you can still move well enough in to a) muck stalls, drag hoses, schlep hay, and b) actually ride.  These two requirements are vastly different.  The boots and gloves you wear for chores will be way too bulky to ride in, and probably so will the coat, so have stuff to transition into when you get on a horse.  At which point it becomes a race to see whether your toes give out first, or  your fingers.

3.  Frozen leadshanks.  Leave ’em out hanging on the gate and you will inevitably have to deal with this.  You can thaw the snaps by sacrificing precious hand warmth, but ain’t nothing to be done about the fact that it’s going to be like leading your horse with a broom handle instead of a rope.

4.  Hot Shots:  those little chemical packets which are supposed to heat up when you shake them, and can be tucked inside your mitts and boots and pockets.  Buy many.  They’re useful — when they actually work (which is something of a crapshoot).

5. Snowmobile sleds are your friend.  These are like toboggans on steroids, with high sides, and they’re heavy and rather expensive, but sturdy and can hold a couple of bales of hay per trip.  Beats the hell out of trying to push a wheelbarrow through the drifts.  Canadian Tire puts them on sale at the beginning of the season.

6.  Absolutely no Canadian barn should be without a hot water heater.  They’re not that expensive to install, people, and you can’t even imagine the ways in which even a little hot water is useful from December to March (and often beyond).

7.  There has to be some fitness benefit to slogging through snowdrifts in 15 kg Frankenstein boots.  There just has to be.

8. Why doesn’t anyone sell (women’s) Frankenstein boots that are actually tall enough to slog through those snowdrifts in?

9.  As confirmed on another blog recently:  when filling troughs and buckets, you need at least three pairs of gloves on the go.  One waterproof pair for wrassling the hoses, a second pair to switch to when the first pair gets soaked and freezes solid, and a third pair of regular gloves to resort to after all that nastiness is (temporarily) taken care of.

10.  Four wheel drive.  Not optional.

11.  Ways to keep from freezing while in the saddle:  a) forego the metal stirrups and put cheap wooden Western ones on your leathers, or just ride a lot without stirrups (good for the circulation).  Thaw fingers by tucking them between nice fuzzy horse and saddlepad on a regular basis.  What’s a 1200 lb. beast good for if not sharing body heat?

12.  Also:  ride bareback.

13.  Beware the dismount.  OMFG it hurts when your feet are frozen.

hosers14.  Designate a cheap, washable scarf the barn scarf.  Its purpose is two-fold:  to keep your face from freezing as you bring horses in out of the latest blizzard, and to breathe through when you’re mucking stalls.  Frozen manure makes for simplified mucking, in a way (you can easily find the shitballs you’ve missed because they feel like hockey pucks under your feet, even through the Frankenstein boots and three pairs of socks), but also makes for very dusty bedding.  Scarf warning:  make sure the ends tuck safely into your jacket when riding or working around the beasties.  Parker tried to throttle me last year.

15.  You know you’re Canadian when you’ve mastered leading a horse while wearing snowshoes.  Bonus points if you can lead two.

16.  Hoses are from hell.  Frozen hoses, ninth circle of hell.

17.  Options for dealing with frozen water hydrants:  a) hair dryer; b) the hot water dump (see #6, above); c) the boiling water dump (best to have two working kettles on hand at all times);  and d) the little propane torch that once lived in your kitchen and had only one function, to caramelize the sugar on your creme brulee.   Like that’s ever gonna happen again.  Try not to set the barn on fire.

18.  Horses do not feel the cold as acutely as we do.  Duh.  They’re not nekkid.  And they originated on the frozen steppes, not in the desert.  So don’t judge their discomfort by your own.  And don’t get stupid about the number of blankets you pile on them.  They really would rather not be trussed up like the Christmas goose.

19.  Serving warm beet pulp makes you feel like Mother Teresa.

20.  Sometimes the only way to thaw out properly is to throw yourself into a scalding hot bath.  Though red wine and dark chocolate are also forces for good.

And here are a few of the notions that keep me in Ontario when it’s bleakest:

1. Frozen everything means no worms, and no need to deworm, for at least four months.

shaving2. Ditto mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases.  We don’t have to vaccinate for West Nile or EEE year-round.

3. No fire ants.

4. Virtually no sand colic.

5. No anhydrosis.

6.  Lots of good grazing (well, for six months of the year, anyway) and good hay the rest of the time.  Some places would kill for our hay.

7.  Fuzzy horses are kinda cute and Gund-like and pettable.

8.  Sometimes, it’s actually really nice and soul-restorative to go for a boogie in the snow.  Sometimes.

9. Is it bad that that’s all I can come up with?

Right now, I’m trying to focus on the upcoming winter solstice, after which the days start getting longer and I might start to enjoy enough daylight again to actually complete all the bloody barn chores that take six times as long to do in winter.  So in that spirit: Happy Solstice.  And cheers.

A Wynne Lose

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 DSC_4859 crowd4horseracing … 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.

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FROM THE GREAT WHITE NORTH:  SAME NEWS, DIFFERENT DAY FOR ONTARIO

big-revealWith 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.

A Blessing and a Curse

I’ve been accused of being contrary at the best of times. But fall is when I’m most conflicted.

Two weeks of steady rain and cloud cover have finally — and briefly, according to The Weather Network — given way to a crisp and sunny Sunday today. There’s still quite a bit of colour in the trees, though there are more bare branches than there were a week ago and I know they’ll all be naked soon. Which always depresses me (got nothing against nudity when it’s integral to the plot, but winters tend to drag on here in Ontario and nekkid trees just remind me what a long haul we’re heading into).

It has taken a couple of days for nature to catch on that I’ve filled the bird feeders and hung some suet … but I now have a swirl of cheeky chickadees, a couple of belligerent bluejays, and an occasional nuthatch braving my back porch to partake. I haven’t seen the chipmunk today, but that’s only a matter of time … he and/or she broke the code on the supposedly-squirrel-proof feeder almost immediately and has been stashing sunflower seeds somewhere nearby, judging by the frequency of his/her trips.

There’s also a pair of red squirrels who have been industriously nest-building in the alcove between my covered porch and the roof of my little house. They’ve been going back and forth all week with mouthfuls of nesting material. The sheer volume suggests this is going to be a 37-room monster home with a six-car garage and a home theatre wing. But as long as they’re not chewing through the roof tiles, I figure they’re welcome, and they might provide some entertainment on the more miserable winter days ahead. I don’t think they hibernate fully, though I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong.  Squirrels are not my species of specialty.

So the view from my kitchen table (and current laptop station) is okay today, even if the house is a bit chilly because I refuse to turn on the furnace and start racking up heating bills. Suspect I will not hold out much longer on that one.

For me, fall also represents work. Early November brings the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, a show I have covered for one publication or another (sometimes several) for the past 20 years or so. The Royal is 10 days of noise, exhaustion, blistered feet, frustration, freezing, frying, dodging the Stroller People pushing those damn things around like they’re eighteen-wheelers taking up three lanes of traffic, chasing riders through the cavernous (and o-so-historic) barns of the Horse Palace in search of quotes, struggling to establish internet access and find media seating (which is far too often unpoliced and purloined by wannabes), and hiking to the far ends of the earth to stand in endless lineups for greasy, overpriced food you really can’t afford, all the while fretting that you’re missing the class you have to cover and submit a story on in about an hour and a half.

Can you tell I have something of a love/hate relationship with the Royal, with an increasing emphasis on the hate?

I will take partial responsibility for the blistered feet. Historically, the Royal’s media personages were expected to turn up in something approaching black tie, and that, of course, means heels for those of us of an estrogen persuasion. The coliseum floors are concrete (and the warm-up ring where you often end up interviewing riders post-class is, well, arena footing, which does delightful things to a pair of suede peep-toe pumps, let me tell you). In recent years, the RWF dress code seems to have slipped quite a bit, and I COULD likely show up in a pilled sweater, cords, and running shoes (like some of my colleagues, who shall remain nameless!) and not get turfed out on my ear … but maybe because I like to honour that tradition, maybe because I like to look professional, and maybe because, let’s face it, I rarely have any OTHER opportunity to wear my extensive collection of fanciful and utterly impractical footwear (most shows I cover requiring something more along the lines of Blunnies and an oilskin coat), I voluntarily cripple myself every year at this show.

I can certainly lay blame elsewhere for some of my other Royal pet peeves, however. Like the parking. 20 years I’ve been in unarmed combat with downtown Toronto traffic to get to this show, which is right down in the heart of the city at Exhibition Place (by the shore of Lake Ontario). Rush-hour traffic, I might add, since the important classes are almost invariably in the evening.

Factoid for non-Torontonians: Toronto is the second-most congested city in North America. Only LA is reputed to have worse traffic snarls.

About 10 years ago they built an underground parking garage under the new coliseum building, which at least means you don’t have to brave a possibly icy, slick, wet parking lot in the dark (in your heels) to get to the show. But seriously, would it kill the management to provide half a dozen parking spaces for the media who so diligently promote their show locally, nationally, and internationally every year? $13 per night times 10 is a big chunk out of the paltry pay I’m getting from the Nag Mags to cover the show … and meanwhile, there’s a nearly-empty VIP section of the garage which rots my SOCKS. And let’s not even talk about the number of nights when I might spend half an hour or more going up and down and up and down (and UP and DOWN) the rows, getting carbon monoxide poisoning and looking for a place to leave my truck … and then hiking in to the show (still in heels!) from, essentially, Scarborough.

Yes, the Royal does have some perks. Occasionally, a class is actually entertaining. I have watched SO much showjumping in my lifetime that I will confess it often bores me silly. Oh, look, it’s the usual suspects, jumping the usual jumps in different configurations, with the same announcer doing his same schtick every night. (I may be alone in this, but I don’t miss the Nations’ Cup which was eliminated from the Royal roster a few years ago. If you think regular showjumping is a snooze, try watching everyone jump exactly the same course TWICE.) But the Royal does make an effort to bring in new stuff every year, at least on the exhibition side, and I still get a kick out of the dressage freestyle night and the indoor eventing. The trade fair would also have considerable appeal if I weren’t perpetually cash-strapped. Sigh. And unlike some of the other shows I cover, the Royal features indoor plumbing. All of these are good.

So, conflict. Which is only heightened this year by discovering that I have only minimal assignments for the Royal. After an appallingly sour experience last year, covering the show for a magazine for which I’ve worked diligently for 20 years or more, I swore I would never put pen to paper for them again. Then the American magazine for whom I’ve been sending Royal coverage for at least the last four or five years, handed the assignment to a pushy out-of-towner who, to my knowledge, has never before expressed any interest in coming to Toronto. I had e-mailed their assignment editor, as per usual, weeks ahead and gotten no response … when I followed up with the features editor, she said, “Oh, I wish I’d known you were interested. We would have been happy to have had you cover it, but we handed it off to (Colleague X).”

Wish she’d known?

That just leaves me with dribs and drabs in terms of assignments … enough to get me a press pass but not enough to require me to show up there more than a night or two out of the 10. In some ways, this is what I’ve been praying for, for years. Please Assignment Fairy, let me NOT have to do the Royal this year. I hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it.

Well, TWINK went the Assignment Fairy with her magic wand, and now I don’t know what to feel. The loss of income is significant (though offset by the considerable expense of getting down there to cover the show — and in case you’re unfamiliar with the Wonderful World of Freelancing, let me assure you I am on NO-ONE’s expense account and have never in my wildest fantasies been compensated for gas, mileage, parking, food, accommodations, or critter-sitting). But the relief is palpable.

Then again, where the hell else am I going to wear all my formal wear and my gorgeous, but brutally punishing bronze Anne Klein slingbacks with the little rhinestone buckles?

Stupid fall.

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