No crowds but lots of excitement: Racing returns to Rideau Carleton Raceway

Qualifying races at Rideau Carleton Raceway

Horse racing is making its return to the capital this weekend since the March shut down, but if you're looking to head to the track to see that photo finish yourself, you can't. The return of harness racing in Ottawa is without crowds.

Harness racing at the Rideau Carleton Raceway (RCR) has been given the go ahead from the province. Qualifying races are underway for Sunday’s return to racing. A $65,000 purse is up for grabs. 

Horse ownership is expensive and, for Gary MacDonald, it's been a long hard road. Without racing, there is no paycheque. 

"Not only do I have my own financial burden, I have the burden of seven horses," he says, "and hopefully we draw some post positions and get some of that prize money."

John McMillan, the director of the National Capital Region Horse Association, is trackside. As the horses gallop by, he explains that at RCR, the races are Standardbred, a sulky and a driver, unlike what you might see at Woodbine, where a jockey is on a thoroughbred's back.

"It's like every other aspect of life, it's been devastating," McMillan says of the closure. "Participants in the industry are suffering, so getting them back to work will be a great thing."

Getting back to work may look a little different. Strict sanitary measures are in place at the track to protect staff crew and jockeys. RCR racing manager Peter Andrusek says only small groups are allowed in the stables at a time and temperatures are being checked before entering.

"There's a requirement to wear a mask," he says. "[The measures] have been developed in conjunction with the guidelines of Ottawa Public Health, the Alcohl and Gaming Commission of Ontario and Ontario Racing."

Since 1962, crowds have cheered in the stands. In 2020, those crowds are gone. Live audiences are still not allowed. Instead, the races will be broadcast live online at https://www.hpibet.com/ and https://www.rideaucarletoncasino.com/racetrack.asp

MacDonald says while he'll miss the cheer of the crowds, he knows that fans will be watching and cheering from home. 

While there may be a lack of cheering from the stands, there won't be a lack of revenue. Even before COVID-19, most of the betting took place online. Andrusek says only 15 percent of wagering is actually generated on site. The rest comes from off track, mostly internet- and telephone-based. 

Even though the races will be online, they will be all out. If you're not sure who to bet on, you're not alone. McMillan, who is also the track announcer, has this advice:

"It's going to be difficult to select winners because we haven't seen them compete in almost three months, so maybe pick a name that you like or a pretty colour and go with your instincts."

After the June 7 event, weekly racing returns to the Rideau Carleton Raceway every Thursday and Sunday.