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What you need to know about COVID-19: August 4, 2020
You couldn’t see expressions that conveyed the range of emotions.
Everyone was wearing a mask.
But as horse racing became the first pro sport in the province to return from the COVID-19 pandemic Sunday at Century Mile, they wore those emotions on their sleeves.
The jockeys, the trainers and other horse handler wore the masks from the time they left the barns until arriving at the paddock to saddle up.
They wore them in the parade to the post in front of no live witnesses. They wore them headed to the starting gates to be locked and loaded for the race. Even in the winner’s circle, they wore the masks other than, occasionally to cheat for a second to show a smile.
But when B.C. Sports Hall of Fame track announcer Dan Jukich returned from retirement after calling more than 20,000 thoroughbred races over 28 years at Hasting Park in Vancouver, to call his first ever without any fans in the stands, it was a sweet sound to all the masked men on the property.
Maybe you couldn’t see their faces but you could feel and hear their emotions with their words.
“I’ve been going to the races since my father took me to Northland’s Park when I was four years old,” said trainer Rod Cone. “I skipped school some days in the early ’60s to walk hots. I started shoeing in the late ’60s and got my first horse to train in 1971. I still feel like a kid skipping school every morning when I leave for the track.
“It never crossed my mind to give up on it and to quit this year with all the problems involved. And I’m sure most race trackers in Alberta felt the same way.
“Thanks to Century Casinos for keeping the facilities open for us to train. Thanks to the Horseman’s Benevolent Protective Association and Horse Racing Alberta for working with our government and health officials, we all got trough it.
“Everyone came to the track excited about opening and grateful for decisions made by all parties concerned. We’ve had strict health protocol in place and everyone is doing our best to comply. We may have our best year yet just because we overcame this year’s problems.
“I’ve got 18 horses this year but almost half of them are two-year-olds so we only have four in here today. But owners have been paying to train and keep horses all winter and spring and certainly have been more than ready to get started.”
From those with the biggest operations, like last year’s top trainer Tim Rycroft, to Allen Goodsell, who didn’t have a horse running for openers, it was viewed as a watershed occasion.
“I wasn’t lucky enough to have any horses in for opening day but I hope to have four in next weekend,” said Goodsell. “My situation, like many, has been tough. With Alberta’s economy struggling before the virus completely shut it down, owners have been reluctant to bring horses in. Now with racing being allowed to return, we have seen an influx in horses coming and and the trainers now get an opportunity to run.
“I believe a lot of us, including myself, were one the verge of shutting it down.”
Rycroft was last year’s leading trainer who saddled five horses on Sunday’s eight-race card.
“I think the guys are mostly relieved but at the same time ecstatic that we’re finally racing again,” he said. “It got pretty bad with most of us there for a while. There were a lot of worries with what was going on in the world. It was really worrisome for a lot of guys like me.
“That’s how I feed my family. That’s how I pay the bills. I’m too old to start a new career.”
The problem wasn’t so much feeding the family. It was feeding the horses.
“I give the Alberta owners so much credit for hanging in there with us. They could have packed it in,” he said. “The horse owners have so much respect for the people who work for them in this industry that was already going through tough times with the economy before the coronavirus pandemic hit us.
“They hung in there.”
Rycroft hauled horses to Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg and spent 14 hours hauling them back Thursday, but got to become part of an amazing experience with 11 straight race cards with a handle of more than a million dollars.
“They were the first pro sport up and running again in Canada. People were starving to death to do something sports related and do a little betting. They just about had a two-million day there once,” he said of the track that had a total handle of $12,467,854 all last year and will double that this week. “I think the most important thing this has done is put racing to the forefront again.
“Now if we can all stick together and get through this and stay positive now, because it looks to me from what I’m hearing and seeing is that we have some good going forward in thoroughbred racing now. I think we’ve seen the worst of it. I think we’re on the rebound here.”
On Twitter: @ByTerryJones
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020