Harness drivers back to work with qualifying races at Woodbine Mohawk Park

It's back to work for Doug McNair, Bob McClure and many of Ontario's harness drivers.

Racing resumed at Woodbine Mohawk Park on Thursday with the first day of qualification events. Harness racing was suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic but is scheduled to resume June 5, and McNair couldn't be happier.

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"I was like a little kid at Christmas," said McNair, of Guelph, Ont. "It was definitely a pretty good highlight of the year, that's for sure.

"A few of the guys were speeding a little bit out on the track because in qualifiers they usually don't go that fast but it was pretty good. The guys are kind of getting antsy to get these horses racing again."

Eleven races were held Thursday primarily featuring male pacers. More qualifying is scheduled for Friday, Monday and Tuesday.

"The racetrack is a nice atmosphere," said McClure, a resident of Rockwood, Ont., who drove Forbidden Trade to the '19 Hambletonian title. "It was nice to be there and be able to talk to people — trainers, drivers, grooms.

"I've been in contact with three, four other drivers throughout this but it just nice to be back in that atmosphere. Qualifiers are a good stepping stone but it won't be long before we're racing."

James MacDonald of Guelph and Jonathan Drury of Rockwood, Ont., both posted the fastest times of the day at 1:51.4. MacDonald registered the mark with A Positive Hanover in the sixth race before Drury did the same in the 10th qualifying event with Muscle Mach A.

McNair wasn't far off, driving Beach Blanket Book to a time of 1:52.3 in the eighth race.

McNair wasn't overly surprised to see so many horses ready to go Thursday given many continued training in southern Ontario after racing was suspended. Both McNair and McClure spent some of their down time training horses.

"Once these trainers get them into go here, they usually have them ready," McNair said. "It makes our job pretty easy, they respond pretty well.

"Some (horses) that weren't usually wound up on the track, they kind of were today. It's their first time off the farm in a long time and they kind of get excited. It's just like people who've been locked in their house for two months, they get excited once they get out. But there were other horses that were the same They're all different personalities."

While racing has resumed at Woodbine Mohawk Park, access continues to be limited to essential personnel only. Everyone entering the paddock undergoes screening and temperature checks at the security checkpoint.

Masks are mandatory at all times for racing participants, as is proper physical distancing.

And instead of gathering in dressing rooms before races, drivers are now arriving at the track properly attired. The grandstand remains closed.

"It's a huge change but everyone is adjusting well and it's for the best," McClure said. "You can't predict the future of this so we'll be as safe as we can while we can.

"I wouldn't say relieved (to be back racing) but I'm very happy to see the job they've done with the protocols and how they've managed to make it a very safe environment. But I've never seen anything like this. There are no crowds, no collection of people."

McNair agreed.

"It's a lot different, that's for sure," he said. "The drivers get changed in your car, you walk in and get your mask on and grab the horse and go.

"You don't get to stand around and socialize like we used to. There was a bunch of us standing outside with a few guys poking fun at each other but it's tough to hear exactly what they're saying because everyone is standing six feet apart and have masks on so it's tough to see facial expressions."

Added McClure: "That's probably because people just don't want to talk to him."

McNair said with protocols in place, he has no apprehensions about coming to work. And he's not the bit concerned that sometimes drivers and horses operate in rather confined quarters during a race.

"There's a lot of air flow and plenty of room out there," he said. "And I think it's safer in the paddock than going to the grocery store.

"Everyone is wearing masks, most guys wear gloves. All the drivers wear gloves. It's much safer than a lot of places."

And while racing has resumed, McNair said it's important track personnel don't let their guard down.

"If someone's not following the rules, it could hurt everyone," McNair said. "But everyone there today looked like they were following the rules.

"There's good protocols there and everyone is following them."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2020.

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