A trainer takes a horse for a jog Friday at Truro Raceway. The Bible Hill track's horsemen were given a two-week extension yesterday as talks to save the raceway continue. The track was originally slated to close after this Sunday's race card. Randi Beers - Special to the Truro Daily News
By Harry Sullivan
TRURO DAILY NEWS
TRURO – Harness racing at Truro Raceway has been assured for the next two weeks and plans are in the works for the facility’s long-term salvation.
“All is well as of right now. I feel probably 200 per cent better than I did yesterday,” said Steve Morton, president of both the Nova Scotia Harness Racing Industry (NSHRI) and the Truro Harness Horse Owner’s Association, following an emergency meeting held on Friday morning.
“We’re going to be able to race for the next two weeks,” he said, adding that trainers will also be able to continue to use the track for training purposes.
Horsemen were notified earlier this week by the Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition Commission (NSPE), which owns the race track and related facilities, that racing would not be continued beyond Sunday because of a crippling financial situation. The commission earlier reported that it is approximately $1million in debt.
Trainers were also notified that the electrical and water services to the stables would be shut down by Aug. 15 and the barns would have to be vacated. But Morton said that is no longer the case given that the NSHRI will be providing $100,000 to keep things operating in the short term.
As for whether Atlantic Grand Circuit Week activities will carry on as usual beginning July 21, however, has not been determined.
“We’ll be racing all the way through we just don’t know what menu it’s going to be,” Morton said. “We have to work all that out.”
Friday’s meeting consisted of Morton, local businessman Brent MacGrath (co-owner and former trainer of Somebeachsomewhere), Truro-Bible Hill MLA Lenore Zann, veteran trainer Danny Romo and two members of the NSPE commission.
Board member Laurie Jennings, who attended the session, said he is attempting to organize an emergency meeting of commission members for early next week and if all are in agreement with the proposal made yesterday, a group of prominent local businessmen led by MacGrath will be given leave to put together a business plan for a long-term solution for the facility.
“I can’t really comment that this is the solution and it will save it and we will be racing again, I’m not going to say that, but I’d like to think that it’s a possibility,” he said. “And I know there is potential there. I know with the right people with the right financing with a little bit of creativity and imagination with changing a whole lot of old habits – there’s lots of things we’ve done, just because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Jennings said the commission’s decision to shut down the raceway was not taken lightly. But with no money to pay for future simulcast betting or the large purses required for Atlantic Grand Circuit Week, the board’s hand was forced, he said, because no one on the board wanted to make commitments to the horsemen, staff or to vendors to incur more expense “that we had a pretty good notion we’d never be able to pay.
“And that’s not fair to anybody. It was a hard, hard decision and I’ll tell you that there’s nobody that’s pleased about it.”
Zann, who said no new government funding will be forthcoming for the short-term operations at the facility, expressed optimism that the track can be saved.
“We all left with smiles on our faces and saying that we really hope that this can go forward,” she said, providing the existing commission board members agree to step aside to let the plan proceed.
“The ball is again now in the court of the board. But I feel optimistic because it’s actually a good plan and, if anybody can help to turn things around there at the track, who understands the industry, who’s a good business person, who understands business, who understands change and the change in that particular industry, Brent is the man.”
MacGrath said he has agreed to set up a committee that can “hopefully sift through this thing and see if we can get it on track to have a long-time viable exhibition.”
But that will require a complete refurbishment of the entire exhibition operations and not just the racetrack.
“The whole facility is what needs to be overhauled,” he said. “The exhibition needs to be healthy in order for the racing to be healthy and the racing needs to be healthy in order for the exhibition to be healthy. It’s a total package.”
Providing the existing board does agree to turn over responsibility to his group, MacGrath said, it is his aim to have a long-term business plan in place within six months to a year to provide for approval to the provincial government and local municipal leaders.
Because without the combined assistance from the province, the Town of Truro, the County of Colchester and the Village of Bible Hill, he said, any proposal to save the facility simply will not be viable.
“Am I optimistic about keeping racing going? I am. Am I optimistic about keeping it going in the business model that we’ve been used to? Probably there are some changes that have to be done. I don’t know what they are,” MacGrath said.
“I’d like to come back and say this is our findings, this is what we think it is going to take to keep this place going. And I’m talking about the whole property and it could be a changed landscape.”