On a national stage, harness racing is facing hard times. Rising costs, increasingly burdensome regulations, and declining purse revenues are putting the squeeze on horse owners and tracks alike.
But at St. John’s Racing and Entertainment Centre, the province’s only pari-mutuel betting track, horse owner Scott Forward says things have never been better.
“We’re racing for more money than we’ve ever raced for before, our population of owners and horses has risen in the last three or four years and each year there seems to be more coming on,” says Forward, crediting co-owner Jim Whelan and his son, Brett, SJREC manager, with helping to turn things around since purchasing the nearly 27-acre facility next to Goulds’ Third Pond in the fall of 2005.
“At every other track, they’re taking things away from horse owners and drivers, whereas here, each and every day there’s reason to get excited and maybe think about purchasing another horse because the boys are doing an extremely good job of keeping the maintenance up.”
Looking at pictures just a decade old, Forward says the facility looked like an abandoned town, an eyesore ready to be demolished. That quickly changed when Jim Whelan took over.
“It was a fair investment for them to get it up and going again,” says Brett Whelan, who didn’t count on falling in love with the track, the people and the province when he arrived from Ontario in 2007 for what was supposed to be a three-week stint.
“Between the purchase and all that, it was over $1 million in the first couple of years.”
The hefty price tag included an immediate and complete renovation of the four-story main building and the construction of a new scoreboard at the centre of the track, a regulation from the federal government.
It didn’t end there. Forward says Jim Whelan went to the horse owners and drivers looking for a wish list of items.
“We said, ‘Every one of the three barns is leaking really badly, so addressing that would be nice,’” Forward recounts.
“He had a crew of men here right up until Christmas Eve.”
The next year, they asked for the track, which had fallen into serious disrepair, much to the detriment of the animals, to be resurfaced. Not only have the Whelans maintained the track each year since, they’ve improved it.
“Before Jimmy bought the place, if you looked at the oval, the corners were almost level. So each and every year, his aim is to try to get those banked.”
While Forward and his fellow horse owners and drivers credit the Whelans for bringing the place up to scratch, Brett Whelan says without the co-operation and dedication of the horsemen, there wouldn’t be a track.
“We have a good working relationship with them. We work together and make decisions together to try and better the industry here rather than work against one another. We do whatever we can to help them, and they’ve done the same.”
The result of a successful, two-way give-and-take relationship isn’t limited to upgraded facilities. Last year, horse owners and drivers competed for almost $120,000 over 20 race days, nearly three times what was competed for in 2007.
The bulk of that money comes from SJREC’s percentage of the simulcast wagering service, which took in over $2.5-million in on-site and online bets last year. Betting on live races has also increased over the past three years, fluctuating between $10,000 and $40,000 per race day.
“You need to have so many racedays at the track to get your simulcast license through the government for a betting permit every year, so we have to run at least 10 pari-mutuel races,” explains Brett Whelan.
“We’ve ran everywhere from 10 to 35 over the last few years, because as revenues and costs went up, we’ve had to adjust how many we’re running.”
To make up for their short season, SJREC offers non-pari-mutuel betting races for the first 10 weeks of the season, a qualifying round of sorts. Even though there are no bets placed on the races, drivers are still competing for a modest purse. The payout for last Sunday’s top race, for instance, was $790.
But Whelan is quick to point out no one is in this for the money, and that almost every penny of winnings goes right back into the sport.
“They’re not going to make a living off this, but it’s a hobby and they love the sport so they don’t mind spending their money on it.”
Widespread interest in harness racing may never reach the fever pitch it did in the 20-plus years following its 1961-founding by a group of local equine enthusiasts who would race for a bag of feed or bale of hay.
But word is getting around.
“We’re getting new owners every year, people who have either never been involved with the industry and those who haven’t been involved in the last 15 to 20 years are starting to come back and buy horses,” says Whelan.
The progress is slow and there are still problems facing the track and its occupants, chief among them is their continuing anonymity. Ask anyone at the track — from Brett Whelan, to Scott Forward, to driver Frankie Joyce, to trainer Carl Ryall, to bartender Sonya Wescott — and they’ll all tell you that most people aren’t even aware the track exists.
“We’d love to see more people on the rail and some new blood in terms of owners, trainers and drivers,” says Forward, who recognizes the fringe sport is something of a hard sell.
That’s not stopping Brett Whelan from doing everything in his power to put SJREC back on the map.
In recent years he’s brought in Thomas Amusements, the RCMP Musical Ride, and fundraised thousands for charities like the Newfoundland chapter of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and the Arthritis Society.
“We sponsor a lot of baseball, soccer and hockey teams and any time they want to do fundraisers, we offer the building free of charge. Whatever we can do to help out the community.”
While the first races at SJREC took place in 1961, the track was officially sanctioned in 1962, making this the 50th anniversary year.
As such, an anniversary committee organizers are planning a big day of activities for both young and old to celebrate the occasion. Included among their plans are a display of old harness racing photos, prizes and give aways, face painting and colouring for the kids, and a special race to mark the event.