Lose some, win some.
The withdrawal of two towns that formerly hosted weekend races on the provincial harness racing circuit has been offset by the addition of two new ones, with Morris and Selkirk signing on to host the Manitoba Great Western Harness Racing Circuit.
“This isn’t new to lose towns. Years ago we used to race in Russell, Swan River, Carberry, Minnedosa and Pilot Mound at different times,” said Mason. “They come and go. There’s a few that drop off and more that come on.”
For the past 15 years, the circuit has been stable with 24 days of racing in six to eight different venues. A typical MGWHRC weekend event features 16-20 races with 100-125 horses competing for purses that range from $1,300-$1,800 per race.
With that kind of money floating around, some might assume that scooping up a few purses would be easy. But the horses are standardbreds, and the trotting gait doesn’t come naturally to them. That means a newly broke horse needs at least six months of daily training to learn it, as well as develop stamina and speed.
“There will be some who make their gas money, but there will be lots who don’t,” said Mason, adding that those who choose to compete do it because they love it and want to see the tradition continue.
The profusion of gambling alternatives in recent years, from video lottery terminals to casinos both north and south of the border, has put a dent in the number of regulars who follow the harness racing circuit, as well as the locals who come out to see events in their towns.
“It’s been down in popularity ever since VLTs came into play in the early 1990s, and then sports betting after that. All that takes a chunk out of horse racing,” said Mason.
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Provincial support for harness racing amounted to about $450,000 a couple of years ago, but last year that figure dipped to $400,000.
In 2013, races had been underway for almost three weekends before the circuit was informed by the province of the exact subsidy amount.
Mason said that a verbal agreement has been reached with provincial officials, but the exact sum hasn’t been officially announced yet.
Horse racing creates major economic spinoffs for communities, all the way from the breeders, forage and feed producers to trailer manufacturers, veterinarians and farriers, he added.
Alvin Taft, secretary-treasurer of the Wawanesa Agricultural Society, said that a combination of factors has led to the town dropping out of the harness racing circuit.
“We can’t seem to get the volunteers we need to help put the weekend on, and we never know until sometimes after the racing starts what money we’ll be getting from the government to support it,” said Taft.
He added that due to lack of funds, the local track has deteriorated and the amount of money brought in by racing wasn’t enough to warrant upgrading it.
“Years ago, we used to get huge numbers of people at the races, but the younger people nowadays seem to be interested in other things,” said Taft.
A provincial government spokesperson confirmed that the province had “renewed” its support for harness racing this summer, but at press time could offer no further details.