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Ontario shutdown forces Woodbine harness driver Bob McClure to race in United States

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Canadian harness driver Bob McClure to become a road warrior. The Rockwood, Ont., resident left Friday for The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., where he'll race for the immediate future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Canadian harness driver Bob McClure to become a road warrior.

The Rockwood, Ont., resident left Friday for The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., where he'll race for the immediate future. McClure, 31, was forced to head south when a major farm he drives for (Quebec's Determination Stable) moved its horses from Woodbine Mohawk Park in Campbellville, Ont., to the U.S. after racing was put on hold last week with the Ontario government's four-week provincial shutdown.

"My top stable went down and asked me to go so I'm just following them," McClure said. "I have to leave my wife and five-year-old son and I don't want to. I'd prefer to race at home.

"Obviously with going back and forth you don't know what you're going to get as far as quarantine exemptions. And at the same time you don't want to have something happen and bring it home."

But McClure said there will be something good to come from the situation.

"I'll be vaccinated with my first shot of Moderna, within five hours of entering the U.S.," he said. "But I think that (travelling between Ontario and New Jersey) is going to be a regular thing for the next month or so."

McClure was Canada's top driver in 2020 after surpassing $7 million in earnings. In 2019, he won the US$1-million Hambletonian with Determination Stables trotter Forbidden Trade, a 15-1 long shot.

While McClure is the lone Mohawk driver to head south, several trainers — including Mark Steacy, Blake MacIntosh and Anthony McDonald — have followed suit. The shutdown forced Woodbine Entertainment to postpone the start of the '21 thoroughbred card Saturday at Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack.

While having to commute is hardly ideal, McClure understands Determination Stables' decision.

"It wasn't an option to just shut down because they have grand circuit horses that are going to compete with the American-breds all summer . . . and you can't just let the American horses get a month head start," McClure said. "They have to be race-ready and that takes racing.

"These are not stock cars, you don't park them in the garage and they stop burning gas and oil. These need to be fed, trained and worked and one person can't do it. You need staff, you need everything.

"(Determination Stable) is Canadian ... with many Canadian breds but they have to keep the business running. I've been fortunate the last few years but I don't know how the majority, and I'd say the majority, of the industry is going to fare through this."

It's a fact not lost upon Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson.

"There's definitely going be damage," Lawson said. "What's different this time around is these guys are fed up and are leaving and they're not going to rush back here.

"The difference is we're losing a significant number of horses that may not come back on the thoroughbred side and now we're losing people like Bob. The longer these people are gone, the longer they're going to stay away because they're going to settle in."

Mark Casse, Woodbine's leading trainer, has 40 horses at the Toronto track. But with racing on hold, Casse has put plans for shipping another 60 northward on hold.

And Kevin Attard, another of Woodbine's leading trainers, has said he might have to re-locate to the U.S. if racing doesn't begin shortly.

"On the thoroughbred side, if we don't have Mark Casse for a season, if he pulls his horses we're in real trouble," Lawson said. "Woodbine is not a profitable business, we need the wagering money just to pay our operating costs . . . and if we don't have the wagering money, it's going to do damage across the province.

"I don't want to paint a bleak picture but this is a significant problem that needs to be addressed immediately. There's no question in my mind it's going to have a material impact upon the 2021 racing season and whether we can get the people back in 2022. I'd like to think we can but the economics are going to be lingering in terms of breeders and potentially people who'll set up elsewhere."

 or The trouble is, Lawson said, horse people have no idea ifwhen they might be allowed to resume their livelihood.

"All these people are looking for is if we can tell them we're starting May 6 when this shutdown order (expires)," Lawson said. "Now, I appreciate that with how this is spreading that we can't but I don't think it's a stretch to say if we go back to the colour zone when the stay-at-home order ends, we will allow live racing.

"I talked to the province about two weeks ago and they said they were supportive but would like local health authorities onside. But it's pretty hard to get these health authorities to spend the time in the middle of this crisis to even look at it."

Lawson commended Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city of Toronto's medical officer of health, for examining Woodbine's protocols.

"She asked many questions and we got her comfortable that we were doing the right things," Lawson said. "But that's different from her saying you can race because that's not her jurisdiction."

What frustrates McClure is people being allowed to golf while he and others, despite wearing masks and having protocols they must follow, can't drive a horse.

"I love golf and I've been golfing so I'm not trying to be a hypocrite," he said. "But if four guys can line up by a tee box and hit balls on a course, there's no reason why we, fully masked and fully protected and following rules and isolated, can't racehorses."

Woodbine Entertainment implemented temperature screening for everyone entering the paddock at Mohawk Park as part of its protocol, something McClure admits he disliked initially.

"For a while, I actually felt its screening was borderline harassment," he said with a chuckle. "But then you saw where they were going with it, they did an amazing job and we didn't have a single outbreak.

"I don't know if it's a lack of education on the government's part or they just have too much on their plate but I think if they took a serious look at this, it's something that makes no sense not to be open and running."

McClure said stables moving their horses from Ontario isn't the only repercussion of the racing ban.

"I think the big problem here is the first lockdown, horses were sent down to trainers then brought back," he said. "This time, there's no sending because many, many horses were just sold to the U.S., probably for less than they were worth but people just took what they could get and got out.

"So it's not a situation where you can pull the horse back because it's gone and it's an American horse now. I know the thoroughbred side is in similar limbo . . . that's very concerning."

 This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press