A day at the races: a look at harness racing in southern Alberta

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a September day at Century Downs Racetrack in Balzac, Alta. Today’s card is full with 11 races, with a post time of 2:15 p.m. 

A cold blanket of fog has settled onto the barns and racetrack in the hamlet north of Calgary, allowing only glimpses of the occasional trainer out jogging their horse clockwise on the track.

Back at the barns, the aroma of horses intertwined with shavings of pine and spruce wafts through half-opened doors.

Trainer of the year Michael Campbell and his wife Jena Anderson look after their horses at the barns at Century Downs. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

Trainers run their hands over their standardbred horses; the breed is best known for harness racing. Groomers leave the warmth of the barns to gather fresh shavings to lay down for bedding after they muck out the stalls. The steady voices of the groomers soothe frisky horses who know it’s game day.

Owners and trainers periodically make their way to the barn doors and stare out at the gloomy weather as they make mental predictions how the fog and promise of a downpour later in the day will affect their horses’ success on the track.

Driver Logan Gillis helps veterinarian Jordan Cook do a scope on a horse. If a horse has poor performance or is more tired than usual, or there is a bit of a cough, a scope can help identify any health issues. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

Fred Gillis, executive director for the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association (ASHA), sums it up as he drives to the back-end.

“It’s a lot of things [horse racing] but never boring. We are like postmen — rain or shine we race.” 

‘It’s not the best retirement plan’ 

Harness racing is more accessible and owner-friendly than thoroughbred racing.

It is a sport where hundreds of thousands of dollars exchange hands with a handshake. It’s approached with a pull up your boots and get it done mentality. Most of the owners end up putting their winnings right back into their barns and horses. 

Groom for Brandon Campbell, Elizabeth Tanquay, carries out the tack from the barns to load up in the horse trailer at the end of the race day. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

“You can’t be in this industry if you don’t love horses. That’s the first thing,” says Colleen Haining, ASHA horsemen’s bookkeeper, and horse owner and breeder with Haining Farms. 

“There are very, very few people who make a living and have enough money at the end when it’s time for them to retire because they’ve put their bodies through everything and they can’t do it anymore.

“It’s not the best retirement plan.”

Paul McDonald leads his horse out of the test barn with security Helen Wittup watching. The test barn is used for testing blood and urine for prohibited substances on the winning horses and randomly selecting horses after they race. Run by an independent agency, they are the ‘racing forensics’ of the harness world at Century Downs Racetrack. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

In harness racing, you can do it all and start your own business. It starts with buying one horse. Many owners breed, train, and drive their horses, and at the end of an impossibly long day end up mucking their stalls. 

“If you’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re cold, you’re sick — too bad,” says Haining. 

“Take care of your horse first, then you can go, that’s kind of just the way it is around here.”

Working 7 days a week 

At 10 a.m., the rain drums down in a deluge, and the track is closed to further training to preserve the stability of the sand and crushed stone on the 11/16 track. 

But while training is shut down, Jordan Cook, a vet with Moore Equine Veterinary Centre, is busier than ever. 

During race season, Cook will be at the track seven days a week, making the rounds before, during and after race time. Moving swiftly from stable to stable as trainers and grooms share their concerns, Cook analyzes each horse’s performance and suggests individual tweaks to workouts and diets to keep the horses at their peak.

Driver Tyler Redwood heads his horse back to the barns at Century Downs Racetrack. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

But mostly she works closely with the grooms as they spend the most time with their charges. 

“‘[Grooms] pick up the horses from the track after a race, they can tell if the horse is more tired than usual or if there is a bit of a cough. We are looking for different reasons as to why the horse can have poor performance. If I don’t see anything on a cursory exam, often I will pull blood to look for muscle enzyme changes.” 

Often after a race, Cook adds, horses get what’s called “tying-up”  — severe cramps similar to what human athletes get after running. 

Trainer, driver and owner Kelly Hoerdt, in the middle, smiles for a photo in the winner’s circle with his sister Barb Jensen and her husband Alex Jensen. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

When the race starts, friendships end for the next two minutes.”– Colleen Haining

Every race is as big a gamble as it gets for owners, trainers and grooms  —  and each horse’s current health is just one part. How well their horses will run also depends on the weather, having the right tack equipment and whether the animals have game-day jitters. For green horses that have not yet qualified, it’s always a gamble until they race for the first time.

“They look great on paper, but they don’t always turn out,” says Haining. 

“I’ve had babies that look fantastic, but that only counts when they make it to the winners’ circle and get their picture taken.” 

Harness driver Tyler Redwood checks on his horse Lost In The Moment after an accident during the eighth race of the day. Lost In The Moment was able to walk back to the barns shortly after. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

Haining’s family are horse people to the bone.

The dynamics in harness racing run deep, with a common thread of everyone loving horses. This is an industry where the whole family participates in every role. Harness racing is intergenerational. It gets in the blood and under the skin. Horsemen watch their kids grow up in winner circle pictures. The backstretch is filled with camaraderie. Pay attention to the race cards: often you will see the riders share the same last name.

Harness driver Brandon Campbell with horse Metaki in the lead during the seventh race. The race ended with all horses declared as a ‘no contest’, after horse Ventimatchalatte and his driver Kelly Hoerdt fell in the turn. The winning purse of $17,400 was divided amongst all the horses that did not fall. And all money wagered was returned. Ventimatchalatte has since raced and is doing well. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

In the Haining family, Colleen’s husband and daughter both drive and compete against each other. 

“There are a lot of good friends back here, but when the race starts, friendships end for the next two minutes,” says Haining.

‘You’ve got to know your horse’

It’s close to 2 p.m., and last-minute adjustments are made in the paddock barn under the steady hands and voices of grooms and drivers as hopples (used to maintain the pacing gait of the horse) and the race bike (a two-wheeled bike that the driver sits on) are added to the quick hitch on the harness before the race.

Horses’ tattoos are checked to make sure the correct horse is racing. And, one by one, the competitors head to the track. 

Each horse has individual mannerisms and requirements to race effectively.

Spectators look onto the racetrack as they watch, gamble, and enjoy the sport of harness racing at Century Downs Racetrack on Sept. 12, 2021. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

During a race, some horses think they are out for a romp with their mates on the track. Others have to be held back until the last stretch. Some horses can go to the front of the race and can keep going and win wire-to-wire  — horse talk or racing lingo for keeping their lead from the start of the race to the finish line.

And then there is tack choice. With over 40 types of bits and bridles to chooses from  —  ie. blind bridle, murphy, fly mask, shadow roll and ear hoods —  the right combination can be endless. 

“You’ve got to know your horse, and not every driver can drive every horse, and not every driver or every person can motivate every horse,” says Haining.

Driver, trainer and owner Kelly Hoerdt, left, prepares for rain and a sloppy track in the drivers locker room at Century Downs Racetrack, on Sept. 12, 2021. Owner, driver and trainer Brandon Campbell plays on his phone as he waits for the races to begin. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

2:15 p.m.: An amber light calls the horses and their drivers to line up across the track behind the white wings of the gate on the starter truck for a moving start.

As the truck accelerates, bringing the horses up to speed, the initial 10 to 12 seconds at the start of the race is the fastest.

When the horses surge ahead as the truck slows down and moves off to the side, they can reach 60 km/h as the drivers jockey for position along the rail.

The crowd moves to the fence to get a better view as they clutch their programs and betting tickets.

Dave Kelly, driving horse Restless And Wild, competes around the turn with Phil Giesbrecht driving Needabankloan in a one-mile pace in race five. Driver Giesbrecht came in first with horse Needabankloan in the two-year-old division with a time of 1:58 and winning a $17,100 purse. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

Track announcer Murray Slough — races always have a live announcer explaining the field — describes the progress of the race as drivers look for an edge to break away.

The spectators lean in as the horses round the last turn, hoofs thunder down the home stretch, drivers caked in mud shout encouragement to their horses as they cross the finish line.

Groom Dan Sifert, working for Brandon Campbell, leaves the barns to take a horse out on the jog cart. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

Century Downs advertises 100 days of racing a year, and it’s just one of several race tracks in the province, along with the Century Mile Racetrack in Leduc County, south of Edmonton, Evergreen Park in Grande Prairie, Millarville Racetrack in Millarville, southwest of Calgary, the Rocky Mountain Turf Club in Lethbridge and the Track on 2 in Lacombe.

Overall, the horse-racing industry in Alberta employs more than 7,000 people.

COVID-19 shutdown hit racing hard

The racing industry was shut down for more than five months due to COVID 19, from Dec. 12, 2020, to May 18, 2021.

“Our routine didn’t change; our expenses didn’t change. The only thing that changed was potential earnings. And a lot of the trainers gave the owners deals to keep them in the industry. Because they are an owner, they can’t afford to keep paying a training bill and have nothing coming in,” says Haining.

Owner Paul McDonald ties his horse’s tongue to the side in the paddock barn before his driver Jamie Gray heads out to race. Tying the tongue helps the horse by improving their racing performance as it prevents them from choking on their tongue during intense exercise. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

Haining explains the days were long, people were exhausted and stressed, trying to keep the industry moving forward and making sure no one got sick. 

“The work didn’t stop. The exercise didn’t stop. The hay bill and the grain bill and the vet bill and the shoeing bill, none of that stopped.”

The harness racing industry in Alberta was hit hard. Without the purses from the races, there was no money to look after the stock, so the horse stock experienced a sharp decline as they were sold. Many of the top trainers followed suit and moved to Ontario and the United States where there were fewer restrictions to racing during the pandemic.

Nathon Sobey, a leading trainer and driver, looks out from the barn to assess the weather. A sloppy track from rain can affect a horse and how they perform. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

“Part of our industry is coming on the backstretch”  —  the area on the other side of the track where horses are stabled and trained  —  “to see your horse, and we weren’t allowed to have owners back here [due to public health restrictions],” says Haining.

“What do you want a pet for if you can’t come visit with carrots and pet it and play with it? What do you want to own a resource for if you can’t watch it race and be excited for it and put $2 down? And have a drink, bring your family?” 

Harness drivers race rain or shine. Dave Kelly drives to the barns after a race at Century Downs Racetrack. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

Hope on the horizon

But new confidence has come back to the industry with the successful Yearling Sale in September. 

“When the trainers, drivers and grooms on the backstretch see owners still willing to invest, that’s the ticket, and that’s the positivity, and that is huge for us; that people in our industry are still willing to invest $44,000 on a yearling that won’t go to the races for at least nine months,” says Haining.

Driver and groom Tyler Redwood uses a nebulizer while warming up his horse Memum Knowsnothing outside the barns. Nebulizers are used to help with respiratory inflammation, allergies and Alberta’s smoky air caused by forest fires. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

With hope on the horizon with stock being introduced back into harness racing, in the end it still comes down to what happens in a blink of an eye on the racetrack. 

Haining sums it up: “When you’ve been racing for so many years, this business can make you arrogant or humble in two minutes.”

Harness drivers Phil Giesbrecht and Dave Kelly are nose to nose, taking the last turn in a one-mile pace in race four at Century Downs Racetrack on Sept. 12, 2021. Driver Giesbrecht came in first with horse Farasthe Eyecansee in the two-year-old division with a time of 1:58.4, winning a $17,100 purse. (Christina Ryan for CBC)

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