Be Inktricate

Something’s Gone Awry

By Posted in - Writing / Editing on February 28th, 2013 0 Comments

Story & Photos by Kimberly Dawn.
Published in Trot Magazine
May 2008

Seven years after receiving slots, Dresden Raceway is a portrait of what’s wrong with Ontario racing.

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In 2007, owners of Windsor Raceway collected $1.3 million from the slots at their smaller racing subsidiary, Dresden Raceway. Horsemen who raced at Dresden collected the same. Not bad, in an agricultural town of 2,496. The slots are working. They’re making money. But inside the harness racing industry, a storm is brewing.

Rain casts tricky shadows that can disguise the happy things about a place. Paint seems more peeled, fences a little less sturdy. The rain brings out the worst in things. It makes the whole world drearier. Bleaker. On a rainy winter day, the backstretch at Dresden Raceway is practically empty.

It’s not hard to imagine dozens of hooves thundering over packed stone dust, with drivers yelling from their bikes. The rumble of the track is deafening as the horses pace around the final turn. Speakers crackle with anticipation as the announcer calls faster. With only a sixteenth of a mile to the wire, the packed grandstand bulges with shouting spectators hopefully waving their tickets. But now, only a single horse paces by the quarter pole. Clop-clop. Clop-clop.

It’s a dark bay colt with a tiny white star. He has to work a little harder than usual to pull his hooves out of the mud. The air rings with silence, broken only by the steady beat of four mud-packed hooves. Clop-clop. Clop-clop. An echo draws out the sound.

***

In Dresden, Ontario, harness racing has been the flesh and blood of community since the late 1880s. At one time, everyone in town owned horses, was related to someone who owned horses or had a friend who owned horses. And not just any horses — standardbreds. The track has the sort of story you’d expect in small town Ontario. The Dresden Driving Club sponsored speed trials at the beginning of the century, and in 1919 the Camden-Dresden Fair Board laid down a new half-mile track.

For years after — 50, 60, 70 years after — the raceway flourished. A 1955 article penned by The Canadian Sportsman labeled Dresden the home of one of the hottest groups of racing fans in the country. In the 1970s, race secretary George Deacon modernized the track with an elaborate new grandstand, outdoor lighting and advanced wagering facilities. 1975 saw an average daily attendance of 1,394 people — in a town of less than 2,700. The heyday of Dresden Raceway saw drivers Fred List, Brian Hodgson and other local heroes chase purses in front of record crowds. And the 1980s were even better. Let’s just say it was a good time for Dresden horsemen.

***

In 1986, low-top Adidas running shoes are the sneakers of choice. White ones.

At 19, Gary Patterson buys a new pair every year, and this year they have blue and red stripes. If you follow them just about any day of the week, that pair of white leather shoes will take you straight to Dresden Raceway in a 1977 silver GMC pickup. This particular Friday evening, they are standing beside the concession booth inside the grandstand. Normally they’d be outside, but there’s a light rain falling and Patterson would rather not get them wet. In bright white shorts and a crisp navy polo, he’s carefully scanning the Friday program. His sharp blue eyes occasionally glance up at the action happening on the track.

In 1986, low-top Adidas running shoes are the sneakers of choice. White ones.

If this was like other Friday evenings (or some Sunday afternoons) in 1986, the brown-haired, clean-shaven teen would have left the concession through a set of glass doors and found himself outside, striding across the front of the grandstand to a flight of stairs that takes you up to the landing above. He would have meandered in those sneakers across the catwalk at the top of the stairs, through the judges’ booth and the photo-finish booth, and climbed through a hole the size of a pizza box to get to the tiled roof.

Patterson is determined to become the track announcer. So a lot of days, he’s up here with a program and a tape recorder, calling the races into the microphone from his sky-high perch. It doesn’t matter that no one can hear him. “Ladies and gentlemen, now parad- ing on the track are the horses and drivers for the first race….” His voice is lost behind Vance Cameron, the announcer who’s blaring over the loudspeakers. But today is different. Patterson feels a tap on his shoulder. He spins around and is face to face with assistant mutels manager Tim Brewer.
“You’re up,” he says.
“What do you mean I’m up?” replies Patterson.
“Vance’s got a flat tire,” says Brewer.
“You’re callin’.”

***

When a racetrack is full of people, it has a certain feel. If you walked into the grandstand at Dresden on a Sunday afternoon in the 70s or 80s, you’d have to find your way past the bustling concession and through the patrons milling around the pari-mutuel windows. You’d pick up a program and push through the glass doors, and as you walked out from under the grandstand, you’d feel the warm sun on your face. Kids would bump into you as they ran about, shouting numbers. Kids always pick the winners — much to the chagrin of the grey-bearded man whose cigar is clenched so tightly between his teeth you think it might break in two. He’s pouring over the program, waiting for a horse to jump off the page at him. If you turned to face the grandstand, you’d see the regulars seated in rows of golden bleachers.

Behind you, horses would thunder past as drivers warmed up. And you’d smell French fries. Hot dogs. Horses. The track at Dresden is so close. It’s not like those other big places. It’s so close you’d feel as though you could touch the horses as they flew by. That was Dresden Raceway. That was Ontario’s little Saratoga.

***

With growing excitement, Patterson follows Brewer out the glass doors, through the misting rain, up the stairs of the grandstand, over the catwalk, and into the announcer’s booth. Brewer leans over and flips a switch. “You’re live,” he says, before turning to leave.

Patterson eagerly shifts his attention back to the program. It’s six minutes to post. The trouble with calling races in the rain is that drivers wear mud-suits – clear, plastic suits that hopefully keep them from getting soaked in the muck and splatter of the track. Their usually bright colours get a little muted, and it can be hard to tell who’s who.

Running down the post parade, Patterson’s getting a little worried. He’s got Mike and Mark Horner and Ross Haywood all in green and white. The McGuire boys are black and white, Dale Williams has a little red in his colours but his brother Mark doesn’t. And they’re all in mud-suits.

“You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me,” mutters Patterson.

He peers out into the rain and takes a deep breath before leaning into the microphone. It’s two minutes to post.

“Ladies and gentlemen, now parading on the track are the horses and drivers for the first race….”

***

In 2008, Ian Hyatt, 44, has been training out of Dresden for 10 years. Danny’s been here for 16 years. Freddy’s been here for 20. Gaff’s been trotting horses here since 1958. They remember the heyday here, the buzz. They remember the crowds and the food and the excitement of grassroots harness racing. These are the good old boys of Dresden Raceway.

And they’re mad as hell. On a cold, rainy afternoon, it’s so obvious. The barns and fences are in dire need of cleaning, sanding and painting, the grandstand is marred by rust stains and the driveway is more potholes
than not. But the worst of it is the sloppy, muddy half-mile track that circles the soggy infield.

Ian leans up against the wall at the top end of Barn 7 and peers out the half-open door into the rain. On a cold, wet afternoon, it’s so obvious. The barns and fences are in dire need of cleaning, sanding and painting, the grandstand is marred by rust stains and the driveway is more potholes than not. “I wouldn’t subject one to jog on that,” he grimaces, shaking his head. He turns to point at a little bay horse a few stalls down on the left. “I jogged that filly two miles yesterday and pulled her off the track. I’ve even watched some of the guys down here jogging around the barn area.”

His jaw is taunt with frustration, his steely blue eyes a little sad. “It’s too bad,” he says. “It’s just too bad.”

***

Coming out of the 1980s, Dresden took a turn for the worse. Attendance was dropping, the betting handle was down, and the track was in debt. Badly in debt. George Deacon’s massive 1970s modernization project drew in huge crowds, but the Agricultural Society still hadn’t managed to pay it off (over $300,000 in debt remains to this day).

In the early 1990s, race secretary Jay Lekavy tried to keep Dresden open by extending credit to regular bettors. It gave the appearance that money was coming into the pari-mutuels and simulcasting, but in the end only worsened the situation. A 1996 audit revealed the scheme, and a year later, Lekavy pled guilty to theft of $58,000 from the track. In the face of debt, adversity and scandal, Dresden Raceway was in desperate need of a friend. That friend came in Tom Joy, owner of Windsor Raceway. Joy signed a contract with the Agricultural Society to lease the raceway for five years, with three more five-year renewals guaranteed. To protect the
horsemen and their livelihood, the contract stated that Dresden Raceway must be maintained and continue to operate year-round. It was 1997.

For the next four years, Joy and his marketing manager Joe McGorisk revitalized the track. They brought back the crowds with quirky promotions and a real love of horses that made the races exciting again. Dresden Raceway, it seemed, was on its way up. Then in 2001, Joy passed away. Windsor Raceway and all its subsidiaries were purchased by construction giant Tony Toldo. The same year, slots came to Dresden.

***

Seven years later, you can slide the pale green door of Barn 3 to the left — so long as you can push it through the mud — and find yourself face to face with Freddy Jewell and his son Tom. At 48, Freddy has produced three O’Brien Award winners and a Hall of Fame horse out of this barn. Tom, 21, has been along for the ride. They’re worried.

Black toque pulled down over his shaggy brown hair, Freddy stands in the aisle, arms crossed. “I don’t know,” he says with a frown. “I scratch my head — the way they operate.

“Windsor’s taking the dough and they’re runnin’. They’re just letting the place fall down all around them. You know what I mean?”

He’s frustrated because he can’t train his horses. He’s frustrated because no one comes to the track. And he’s frustrated because nobody seems to care.

But Chris Kruba, legal counsel to Winrac, is adamant that the owners of Windsor Raceway do, in fact, care. “The racing aspect of all our businesses is important to us,” says Kruba. “We want to focus on racing, which is our core business. That’s what we’ve bought into. We’ve bought into racetracks. We committed to live racing.”

But regardless, the betting handle is going down, and the track is getting quieter. And quieter. And quieter. Even during the race meet. “Not a lot of people are coming to watch the races and the interest is going down fast,” says Freddy. “For whatever reason. I don’t know — but I’m going to blame marketing.

“I don’t go off to Grand River, or Flamboro or Georgian Downs. But I know what I see in the media. And I see them marketing the place and coming up with ideas, good, bad or whatever — and trying to do something. But around here, I just don’t see any marketing.

“I think if you have a product and you’re not trying to sell it…” he trails off.

“You’re not going to sell it!” Tom pipes in from a few stalls away.

Freddy nods in agreement. “The appeal of harness racing has always been the fact that it’s grassroots, you know, it was where a regular guy could get his hands on the animal.

“We’re grassroots — we’re hands on owners,” he says. “And that tradition is leaving. You know, Dresden’s one more stone. One more spot that’s going. Are we going to stand by and let harness racing die out in the country side?” For a man who’s been racing out of Dresden his whole career, it’s a scary prospect. Freddy lives in town, his kids grew up down the street and he realizes the significant contribution this track makes to the community — and the racing industry writ large. “The powers that be need to realize that grassroots harness racing has to thrive, because there has to be a feeder program for the big program,” he insists.

“Not only for producing horses, but producing horsepeople too, you know?”

***

When the slots came to racetracks across Ontario throughout the late 1990s, they were offered up as a universal panacea to the problems faced by the industry — most of which were accountable to a decreased cash flow. Less people were going to the races, less people were joining the business, and worst of all — less people were betting on horses.

The Ontario government did, at least, have the sense to recognize that bringing in slots would only further reduce the gambling dollars being directed to racing.

Then in 2001, Joy passed away. Windsor Raceway and all its subsidiaries were purchased by construction giant Tony Toldo. The same year, slots came to Dresden.

Essentially, the pie is only so big, says Ontario Harness Horse Association vicepresident Brian Tropea. Taking more money out of racing would have had devastating effects. To avoid this sort of industry cannibalization, the province insisted that a portion of slot revenues be allocated to horsemen to keep the sport alive and well. So under the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), horsemen currently receive 10 per cent of those revenues in the way of purses. Of the remainder, racetrack owners pocket another 10 per cent, while the track’s municipality receives half that figure for community development.

Under provincial regulations, slots must be accompanied by live racing. But the dollars and cents of it are pushing racing right out of the game. The slots, they said, would help the industry. The slots, they said, are just what we need. The slots, they said, would make everything better. Purses would go up, horsemen would make more money, racetracks would remain a viable business model, and the Ontario government would make a little extra money on the side.

For the most part, all this has happened at Dresden. Purses have gone up — from $1,049,442 in 2000 to $1,865,896 in 2007. In the years in between they’ve been even higher (nearly $2.3 million in 2003). The annual purse has essentially doubled, and the race dates have increased by roughly 50 per cent (from 16 cards to 25 since slots arrived). So yes, horsemen are making more money. And arguably, the racetrack has developed a more viable model of operations. Media coverage in 2001 touted the slots as Dresden’s saviour, and Winrac insists that in the years since, they have turned the country track into a better, healthier business. The corporation collected $1.3 million from the slots at Dresden last year. The horsemen, through purses, got the same. You wouldn’t know it to look at the place.

***

Freddy walks out the back of Barn 3 and hangs a left toward a black Ford F150 with a matching two horse-trailer hitched to the bumper. “All these barns used to be full,” he says, pointing to Barn 4 as he strides past, waving at the smaller ones visible beyond it. “Every barn was full. All these stalls were full, going back 10 or 12 years. There’s two outside barns over there, they would all be full. There used to be a barn right on this turn with a lean-to on the outside of it with 10 or 12 in there.”

Freddy reaches the truck and walks a few steps past it to the door at the back of Barn 5. “You’d have over 200 horses here in the summertime,” he says. In March 2008 there’s less than 40. And the number is dropping almost daily.

***

Freddy pulls open the back door of Barn 5 and steps into the dirt aisle, out of the rain. The tack room door is a few feet ahead on the right. He pounds on it with the side of his gloved fist. “Danny?”

The door opens and out walks a brown-haired, green-eyed man in faded jeans and a blue baseball cap. He grins. This is the man who trailers his horses a few kilometers north of here to train on a gravel road because the track is in such bad shape. He’s tried to fix it himself but was handed a stern warning letter for doing so. Danny has a few things to say about the state of Dresden Raceway.

***

The tack room is warm. The couch tucked up against the wall closest to the door is piled high with horse blankets and harnesses in desperate need of cleaning. But the clutter doesn’t seem to bother a handsome grey and white tabby sprawled across the backrest.

Danny sits down in a lawn chair next to the couch, and the tabby yawns, stretching out along the couch and rolling over to expose a furry white belly.

“I’m pulling all these harnesses out cause they’re going to the Hanover sale for junk,” he says with a laugh, leaning over to rearrange them.

His smile is disarming — kind and genuine, but a little sad. He lives a few kilometers away in Wallaceberg, where there was once a track but it closed years ago. He’s owned racehorses since 1989 — when he was 16. “It’s like anything,” he says. “Once it gets in your blood, you can’t get out of it. I like them, you know. I spoil them rotten. It’s the only thing I really have, so what else do I have to do? Spend time with the horses and give them whatever I can.”

Danny’s here, every day, with his horses. And just like the other guys, he’s fed up with the fact that he can barely jog on the muddy track — that he gets better results training on a dirt road. The maintenance, he feels, isn’t enough. “You just watch them not even try,” he says, shaking his head in disgust. “If you’d seen them try, you wouldn’t be so mad, right? But they’re just milking it. They’re just taking everything out of here that they can take.”

But Winrac insists that the track is not, in fact, in poor condition, and that they’re more than willing to put money into it where necessary. “We have people onsite that maintain the track on a daily basis,” says Kruba. “We invest in the facility as required to ensure that’s it’s maintained appropriately.”

“If you’d seen them try, you wouldn’t be so mad, right? But they’re just milking it.”

Danny and the other trainers don’t agree. They even claim they’ve tried to fix the track, with less than rewarding results. He pushes himself up out of the chair and takes three short steps across the plywood floor. There’s a brown medicine-style cabinet mounted in the corner, and Danny opens it, rummaging around inside until he pulls out a typed letter.

It’s the warning he received for trying to do some work on the track, when he and another horseman had a disagreement over the best way to try and fix it. The paper is a little dusty, lined with crease marks, and signed by the general manager of Dresden Raceway. “It’s been my understanding that an altercation between yourself and another horseman took place on March 5th, 2008 on the grounds of Dresden Raceway…” the letter reads. “You are from this point on not permitted to use any of our equipment in regards to maintenance on our track. We appreciate your cooperation.”

He folds the dog-eared paper in half, and in half again, shoving it in his pocket. The tabby yawns again and kneads the couch with his claws. At least the tack room is warm.

***

A voice echoes in from the barn.

“Millsy — you in there?”

The tack room door swings open, and in walks Greg Pray, 48, with Ian close behind. Greg’s on the fair board, and he’s been in the business 21 years, but he’s only got one horse on the grounds. He was offered four to train this year and had to turn them down. “You can’t train on that track.” he sighs, pushing an old harness out of the way and plopping down on a chair beside Danny. Ian leans on his left shoulder against the closed door, arms crossed.

The guys spend an hour in the tack room. They talk about the track, and about their horses and the other trainers. But mostly they talk about the management that’s running Dresden.

“If they walked away, it would be the best thing that ever happened,” Greg insists. He shoves his hands inside the pouch of his grey cotton hoodie and leans forward, perched on the edge of his chair. “If we could shame them into walking away…”

“They won’t walk away,” Danny jumps in. “You know that.”

“Not at $1.3 million a year,” Ian grunts, shifting his weight.

“And they’ve got nine years to milk this place from the slots,” adds Danny.

There are nine years left on Windsor’s lease. Maybe that’s too long for the backstretch to survive without someone stepping up to the plate.

Greg stands up to leave. To go back out into the rain. “It’s crazy,” he says, inching closer to the door. “This is the job we like to do. This is the job we want to do, and we can’t do it.”

Ian nods in agreement. “There’s no reason for it.”

***

Barely 20 kilometers south-east of Dresden there’s an Esso station, a tack shop, a hotel and a restaurant Mama’s Breakfast & Lunch. Welcome to Thamesville.

Having traded the white Adidas’ for shiny black leather shoes, Patterson sits right up against the wooden diner table, his tie tucked out of the way. Since that rainy day in 1986, he’s announced all over Ontario and even occasionally in Florida, but he always comes back to call the races at Dresden. He’s a radio guy, a talkative, deep-voiced kind of guy with a sports drawl.

And you’d never believe how carefully such a man can slice a cheeseburger into squares and eat it so slowly — one tiny piece at a time. “I’m not a hands on kind of guy!” he jokes, sipping a Diet Coke.

At 41, Patterson can still look out this diner window and see the street he rode his bike on as a kid — all the way to Dresden Raceway. He grew up here, just a few blocks away, and this diner and this place hold a lot of memories.

But not as many, maybe, as Dresden. And none as poignant as that first race. “I still remember,” he says, leaning forward, gesturing with his knife and fork. “TDs Dallas with Ross Haywood came up through the middle and split Mike Horner and Gary McGuire. Gary, he was bearing out a little bit and Haywood came off the rail and came between horses for the win.” Patterson laughs. “I was disappointed when Vance came in with two minutes to post. I wanted to do another race.”

He’s announced many races since then — at Dresden and elsewhere — and he’ll go on to do many more. But even this champion of the small town track has doubts. Even he sees the uphill battle his home is fighting. “I think for Dresden Raceway to change, the industry has to change,” he says, settling back into his chair. “There has to be some trust formed. Horsemen and management have to come together.

“It’s a great industry and it affects so many lives. Horse people eat, horse people buy trucks, they buy gas, you know? They love to rent movies. And if that dries up…” He pokes at his mangled cheeseburger.

“Less people will be buying groceries, less people will be buying gas, less people will be buying vehicles. You know what I mean? It’s important for everybody to get together and be cohesive. It’s common sense that tells you it has to be done.”

***

Common sense it may be, but it won’t happen until enough horsemen come together and raise a racket. And not until the slots program encourages stakeholders to reinvest in the sport. “I don’t know what avenues we actually have,” Freddy frowns. “But by making some noise, that’s a good place to start, you know?”

“We’re all not going to go down without being heard from. By making some noise, I believe that’s a good way to draw attention to the fact that harness racing is in trouble out here in the countryside.”

***

In July 2007, the provincial government appointed a panel to examine the state of horse racing in Ontario. That three member panel — which includes Former Ontario Racing Commission Chair Stanley Sadinsky, former Brant Member of Parliament Jane Stewart and racing industry veteran William McDonnell — is due to report its recommendations this spring.

The Ontario Harness Horse Association and other stakeholders have come forward to present action plans to the panel — plans that propose a radical restructuring of how the industry currently operates. While there are a few tracks with success stories, there’s also some — like Dresden — that are on their last legs. It’s a simple mishandling of revenue, but the current industry setup is conducive to these sorts of mishandlings. The horsemen blame management, management blame the horsemen, but all the while very little is accomplished. And it’s because there is practically no economic incentive for anyone to attract customers. Tracks bring in very little money from racing — and less every year, thanks to a dropping pari-mutuel handle following the introduction of the slots. Is it any surprise that they are hesitant to spend money revamping equine facilities?

It is possible that racing revenue is dropping in part or even entirely because of the slots, but on the other hand, no one can deny that they’ve come in with money to share. Where is that money going? How can we channel some of it into reworking our sport so it’s more economically sustainable? And whose job is it to get the ball rolling? With any luck, someone will man up to the challenge of developing a solution. With any luck, it won’t be too late.

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