A day at the races
24 hours in London: 4 p.m.–6 p.m.
By Chloe Berge
The starter car sounds its horn to signal the beginning of the race. The horses’ hooves kick up dust on the racetrack as their drivers tighten the reins to push them forward.
Onlookers shout from the grandstand, coaxing the horses to quicken their pace as they round the track, hoping to keep the odds in their favour. The afternoon races are underway at London’s Western Fair Raceway.
|Photo by Chloe Berge|
|Drivers compete in an afternoon race at the Western Fair Raceway.|
One of the drivers is 25-year-old Ryan Holliday. “I always thought that it’s a rush going behind the starting gate, and I still think that,” said Holliday. “It’s quite a thrill.”
The young standardbred racer competes four days a week at the raceway during the winter season, which lasts from October to May. He has been doing it most of his life. Training and racing horses are as natural to Holliday as the air he breathes.
“My dad had horses; his dad had horses,” said Holliday. “Like most people in the business, it’s something that gets passed down and you get hooked.”
Holliday grew up on a horse farm in Mount Forest, Ont., where his family keeps the 12 horses they own and race. For Holliday, horse racing is a full-time job.
His day starts in the stables on his family farm at 7 a.m. He turns the horses outside to get their legs moving, cleans out the stalls and spends time jogging the horses — warming them up before giving them lunch. Then it’s off to the raceway, two hours from Mount Forest.
The stables at Western Fair are a bustling place, teeming with an army of raceway staff that all help to make sure the races run smoothly. The stable has nearly 100 horse stalls. Hay litters the floor, and the sound of whinnying horses and the chatter of workers blend together under the high pitched roof.
Vets check on horses that may be ill, groomers work hard to keep the animals sleek and drivers like Holliday get to know the horses they will be racing with on that particular day. In addition to his own horses, patrons pay him to train and race their horses as well.
Standardbred racing is a 250-year-old business and Western Fair Raceway has been around for over 50 years. It plays a vital part in London’s economy and sense of community, said Sarah Imrie, the raceway’s marketing coordinator.
“It’s a tradition for the community. It’s something that holds it together and is a part of its identity.”
Imrie said a lot of people’s jobs in London depend on the agricultural industry, which the raceway helps to promote.
“It plays a big role in keeping people in business,” she said.
However, the Ontario government’s proposal to end sharing revenue from OLG slots with the provinces’ racetracks could change that and put London’s economy in jeopardy, according to driver Greg Dustin.
Dustin has been training and racing for almost 40 years. He moved to London from Quebec when he was 13 and saw the raceway from their car window as they were driving into town. He knew he had to be part of it after laying eyes on it for the first time.
“I was here the next day.”
|Photo by Chloe Berge|
|Driver Ryan Holliday spends time with one of his horses after the race.|
Dustin acknowledges that the future of the raceway is precarious.
“What the Liberals want to do … it will devastate this business. It will put a ton of people out of work.”
For people like Holliday, whose entire family is involved in the business, the threat runs deep — and it goes beyond money. He has a passion for the industry and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “It’s an itch you get.”
After competing in several races that begin in the afternoon and end in the early evening, he heads back to the stables. He spends more time with the horses, cooling them down and thinking about what he can do better the next day before he heads home for the night. The days are long, but the work is rewarding, said Holliday.
“You can always do better in this industry. I like the challenge.”