Last September, the future of harness racing across the Confederation Bridge was looking bright.
Horse Racing New Brunswick (HRNB) had announced a partnership with Woodstock First Nations Economic Development Corporation to build a new racetrack and multi-purpose facility in the Saint John area. Nothing has been written in stone yet about that development, but in the meantime New Brunswick racing will look a lot different in 2013.
“We’re still in discussions with government (about a new track),” HRNB president Dr. Mitch Downey said Thursday. “The government is asking questions and seems interested in the industry so hopefully something can be worked out.”
The industry had been relying on a guaranteed $1 million annually from the provincial government, until that extra funding was ended last year. Now, with only $330,000 of VLT revenue to count on, HRNB is forced to make cuts.
According to Downey, the start of racing at Exhibition Park Raceway in Saint John has been pushed back to April 20, from an original April 6 start date, and the track will race just 23 times in the year, as opposed to 34 dates in 2012. Fredericton Raceway will have 13 dates this season, as opposed to 17 in 2012, while Connell Park in Woodstock will race only once, down from three dates in 2012. Overall, that leaves 37 pari-mutuel dates in the province from 54 last year, a decrease of 32 per cent. On top of that, horsemen are being asked to pay $25 a horse to qualify.
Basically, there will be racing on alternating Saturday’s in the summer time in New Brunswick, with the exception of holiday cards. Downey says this was a necessary cost cutting measure, as the organization is forced to decrease expenses and increase revenue if it ever hopes to be able to expand.
The Williamson, Bill Quigg and Maritimer stakes will remain untouched under the new schedule, as well as the Chippin Memorial in Fredericton, and invitational races in Woodstock and Saint John. Downey says the Walter Dale invitational could be downgraded to a local junior invitational, depending on how much money is available.
Those stakes are safe, but the Atlantic Sires stakes program in the province is in jeopardy.
As of right now, New Brunswick’s involvement looks unlikely. The last two years, HRNB used money from their overnight purse pool to fund the stakes program. With only a third of last year’s funding available, HRNB has made a request to the provincial government for money for the sires stakes, but for far less than the $200,000 the governments of Nova Scotia and P.E.I. give to their industries. A decision on that will have to be made within the next two weeks, before the provincial budget is tabled, and Downey isn’t keeping his hopes high that they will come through.
If no funding is received for the stakes program, HRNB will ask to opt out of the Atlantic Sires Stakes program for 2013, leaving those with horses paid into the program forced to race just in Nova Scotia and P.E.I.
“I have four two-year-olds in my barn that I would love to race (in the sires stakes) once in Fredericton and once in Saint John,” Downey said. “Asking to be excused from the program this year is not something we take lightly.”
With the uphill battles he has been fighting with the provincial government, Downey envies the position harness racing is in on P.E.I.
“No other province in the country has politicians that all have at least some understanding of the value of a harness racing industry and what it means to the economy,” Downey said.
Across the continent
The spot for Canada’s representative to the World Driving Championship in France is now up for grabs.
Standardbred Canada had earlier decided Jody Jamieson would automatically receive the honour to represent Canada, but the driver has decided to skip the event as it is scheduled while the $1 million North America Cup is to be contested in Ontario.
Scott Zeron and Sylvain Filion were then asked to represent Canada, but they both declined in favour of the rich stake race. In light of all this, it is disappointing the normal process of regional competitions had not been carried out, and local drivers like Marc Campbell and Jason Hughes had not been given a fair chance to qualify.
The $57,000 Aquarius final is set for Saturday night at The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., and Island native Mark MacDonald has a real contender from Post 1. MacDonald will drive the Mark Ford-trained Warrawee Needy, who won the first leg in 1:50 then finished second in the second leg to Escape The News in 1:48.4. The final will go off as Race 1 on The Meadowlands program with an 8:15 p.m. AT start time.
Nicholas Oakes’ column appears in
The Guardian each Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com.