They’re off and running at Hiawatha Horse Park.
The 2016 harness racing season is underway at the London Line racetrack and early attendance results are encouraging.
The first of 21 consecutive Saturday nights of live horse racing was May 7, and owner Jim Henderson described the turnout as “good – very good, actually.”
“It was a unique day because we were simulcasting the Kentucky Derby. We had a lot of Americans. We’re one of the few places that has simulcast racing. There’s virtually no place in Michigan and, with Windsor Raceway closed (for the season) we were just about the only place people could go to wager (on the derby) … a lot of people were there for live racing afterwards.”
It’s a positive sign for Hiawatha. As recently as a few years ago, Henderson pondered closing the facility after the Ontario government pulled slot machines from many smaller racetracks, including Hiawatha.
But, thanks to some creative diversification, he has kept it going.
Earlier this year, four standardbred horse people made a formal proposal to the province that included a recommendation to close Hiawatha (or at least not grant it any live race dates) along with tracks in Dresden and Leamington, and use the savings to bolster purses at London’s Western Fair Raceway.
The proposal was rejected by the Ontario Racing Association, which is now overseen by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG).
“If you did the math, it didn’t make a lot of sense,” said Henderson. “(Removing) our 21 race dates and the dates at the other two tracks … wasn’t going to make a big difference in the purses at Western Fair.”
Still, the four horsemen’s ominous plan was a reminder to Henderson that Hiawatha’s fate is not entirely in his hands.
He said it’s too early to tell if OLG’s involvement will help turn around the struggling harness racing industry.
“Nobody knows. We’ll just have to wait and see,” he said. “If they take a more hands-on approach, it might work.”
Henderson, of course, has worked with the OLG before – during the years it ran the slots operation at Hiawatha.
Those were boom times for the industry in Ontario, with slot revenue boosting purses at tracks all over the province, he said.
“We were the role model for North America,” said Henderson. “They came from Ohio – they came from all over, to study our system and modeled theirs after ours.”
Ultimately, Henderson said, he’s luckier than some other small track owners. He keep the business operating by converting Hiawatha to a multi-purpose facility, with a driving range, go-karts, baseball diamonds, beach volleyball, fitness centre, storage areas and banquet facilities.