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Live racing returning to Hiawatha, but without spectators

Published on

Cathy Dobson

Live racing returns to Hiawatha Horse Park on June 6, almost three months after the season was suspended by the novel coronavirus.

Horseracing is one of the first sports Ontario is allowing to resume operations. In large part, that’s because it doesn’t depend on gate revenues, like the NHL, NBA and other sports.

And no one in the Ontario racing community has tested positive for COVID-19.

However, the rules related to distancing will be very strict with the reopening, says Hiawatha’s owner Jim Henderson.

“We are not open to the public. But I know people are sick of sitting at home and they’re ready to get back to racing. I think it will be really popular for watching online,” he said, noting there is currently no other form of gaming permitted in Ontario.

Pandemic protocols dictate only two people are allowed to accompany each horse to the track. Horse owners aren’t able to attend and drivers must remain separate and bring their own food.

Horses must be socially distanced too, which won’t be a problem because Hiawatha’s stalls are 12 feet apart, Henderson said.

“We have a lot of space in our two barns and in the paddock.”

One change needed to accommodate harness racing at Hiawatha is more washing facilities.

Henderson learned in late May racing would be one of the first sports out of the gate, and that live racing at Hiawatha could resume every Saturday at 6:30 p.m. from June 6 to Sept. 19.

But for now, the 1,000-seat dining room and 2,000-seat grandstand will remain empty.

Betting is online only on HPItv (Horse Player Interactive). Racing without spectators will be a barebones operation requiring only about 12 staff, a fraction of what’s normally required, said Henderson.

“But I’m happy to keep the property running. I need it. The horse people need it.  There have been a lot of unemployed people since the pandemic.”

Hiawatha’s season normally starts in May, so live racing is a month behind. However, all indications are that interest is high.

A recent qualifier at Hiawatha attracted more than 50 horsemen.

“The numbers are crazy,” said Henderson. “I’ve never seen this many.”

Based on the popularity of simulcast racing prior to the March shutdown, the horseracing industry is feeling confident an online season will be successful, said John Hayes, chairman of Ontario Racing.

“The industry has worked well together to get us through this,” he said in a statement.  “Our whole plan from day one was to keep the racing stock fit and fed. Every facet of the industry focused their resources on that.  The cooperation was unbelievable.”

“We hope that all the horses have been training and they haven’t got fat and lazy,” Henderson joked.


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