Owner, trainers in agreement that Woodbine made right call suspending racing

Owner Brad Grant and trainers Anthony MacDonald and Casie Coleman support Woodbine Entertainment's decision to halt harness racing due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

But they're also very concerned about the impact it will have on the harness-racing community.

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"One thing is absolutely for certain: An extremely large portion of this industry will go absolutely bankrupt very, very quickly in the near future if things aren't rectified," said MacDonald. "It's not some sort of Doomsday (statement), that's the reality of the situation we're in.

"I can't speak for doctors, lawyers, teachers, mechanics, I can't speak for anybody. But I can sure speak for horsemen and I know the vast majority of people in the world that train horses will go bankrupt very, very quickly if this isn't fixed."

Racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park was suspended indefinitely after Thursday's card due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Horses continued running during the outbreak without fans in the stands before officials finally called it off.

Grant said while he was surprised by the move, he's behind it.

"It's disappointing, obviously, as an owner," Grant said. "But I fully understand and support what Jim (Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson) and his team tried to do.

"They've tried to make the best of a bad situation . . . at some point you have to decide what's the best course of action to ensure everyone is safe and healthy and you have to support it."

Even without racing, horses must be cared for, housed and fed. And that costs money, some of which comes directly from racetrack earnings. Trainers also have paid employees.

Grant said he's essentially in a wait-and-see mode regarding his stable.

"I'll see what my trainers want to do and support what they want to do at this point," he said. "At some point you have to sit down and say, 'OK, like we're talking three or four months so let's put a plan together of what we're going to do and how we're going to do it.'

"At some point you have to visit the issue, obviously. But in the short term I have faith in my guys. You have to rely on them."

Grant operates a trucking business in Milton, Ont., and admits he's in a better position than most in horse racing to survive the shutdown. But he readily admits he's the exception, not the norm.

"I worry for the people who were trying to get into the game," he said. "Or the guy who owns one horse and it's more of a hobby for him."

MacDonald, a harness driver and trainer, operates thestable.ca, which provides fractional ownership of standardbreds. The company has 800 clients in 12 countries.

"I'm sure as far as stables going bankrupt, we'll be one of the last," MacDonald said. "But at the same time, I know there are people who live right around the corner from me that one or two weeks will be more than enough to put them under water.

"The last thing I want to do is start laying off our caretakers. Those are the most affected and most vulnerable people in this industry. We're trying to make due the best we can. Will that mean nobody is interrupted in employment or payment? That's pretty hard for me to say at this point. You can be sure the further along we get, the more likely it is that people are going to have to lose their jobs."

MacDonald, a resident of Guelph, Ont., markets his stable as Canada's largest but even it needs racing to sustain itself in the longterm.

"Fortunately for the first time in my life, I might be sitting at the back of that boat but I'm very much in that boat," he said. "We have stake payments to make this month, we have payroll to make this month.

"I'm going to do the best I can but make no mistake, racehorse stables are heavily reliant on racing."

The uncertainty regarding when racing will resume is the biggest challenge.

"I might say, 'Geez, you know our invoicing and billing is spread over hundreds of people all over the world," MacDonald said. "They work too so at some point John's invoice from Cincinnati, Bob's from Listowel, Ont., and John's from Australia, they're not coming.

"And now the saddest reality for me and the scariest thing is I'm left trying to support over 100 horses. That's impossible. I'm going to go home, keep my family indoors, try and pay my bills as best I can and move forward. But at some point, there's no more money."

Coleman, a native of Cambridge, Ont., is in a bind. She's currently in Florida training horses and uncertain when she'll be able to return to Canada.

The earliest she can get back is April 10 so she's sticking to her original plan of returning April 20, with fingers crossed.

"I don't know if the border will be closed, if I'll be allowed to come into the farm, if there'll be stalls at the farm," she said. "There's a whole lot of unknowns right now."

Like many in the industry, Coleman said she's been hurt financially by COVID-19.

"Everybody needs the money, grooms, owners, trainers, drivers, it's going to affect everybody," she said. "I'm in the market pretty heavily and so I'm getting killed there.

"I have six stallions . . . and we're having problems getting flights to send (horses' semen) to broodmares to be bred so I'm taking another hit there. It's going to be bad but we just have to ride this out and hope for the best."

Fortunately, Coleman said the outbreak won't result in her having to let staff go. But after initially being unconcerned about the coronavirus, Coleman is now taking it seriously.

"I tell the staff to bleach and Pine Sol the barns, stalls, everything they touch every single day multiple times a day," she said. "I feel I'm safer here for myself, my horses and my staff.

"They're all outside, open-air barns here, no one is close to each other and we basically go from the barns home. We still have a job to do, we just have to be as safe as possible."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2020.

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