When I was a kid, my dad used to take us to the local fall fair every year. It wasn’t much of a fair – it was kind of small, and the “thrill rides” really weren’t all that thrilling after we’d been to places like Canada’s Wonderland or La Ronde. He also took us to local museums, local dances and community events. He always said, “If we don’t support these things, one day you’ll look up, and they won’t be around anymore”.
I think about that a lot, and Krista and I try to vote with our feet and wallets when we can to send the message that we think certain events are important – important enough that if we looked up one day and they were gone, that we’d be somehow less than we were. We have Ti-Cat season tickets, and go to the Grey Cup every year because the CFL has been a big part of my life. We support the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, and get to Agribition when we can. So, when I read recently about the plight of horse racing in this country (Ontario, in particular), I realized that I hadn’t voted with my feet often (or loudly) enough.
I love going to the track. I love the colours, the pomp and ceremony, the smells, the excitement, everything. There are precious few things that make me happier than standing at the rail when the thundering herd comes flying down the homestretch. It’s not about the gambling, it’s so much more than that. My dad was so anti-gambling that he wouldn’t even buy raffle tickets, he’d just make a donation to your cause – but he loved to watch the horses run.
When our kids were small, and we didn’t have much money, many a Saturday was spent at the track. Where else can you take a family for hours of entertainment with free admission, free parking and insanely good hot dogs? Before my kids even knew that there was actual wagering going on, I’d bet them a popcorn that they couldn’t pick the winners in the next race. Don’t tell the Alcohol and Gaming Commission (or their grandfather), but when they got older, I’d let them each bet $2 per race, and let them keep any winnings. It would cost me $20 for the whole afternoon, and if they picked a winner, they’d buy the popcorn. We’d watch each race from a different part of the grandstand, or down at the rail – me and the kids, loving the sunshine, loving the horses and loving life. Those were some of the happiest days of my whole life, and someday, I hope to do it with my grandkids.
Fort Erie Racetrack, right across the river from Buffalo, New York, has been around since 1897. Lately, due to some very curious political decisions by the Ontario Government, the track is on the shakiest ground that it’s ever seen. It’s as beautiful as Churchill Downs and has survived two world wars, the great depression, television, casinos in Niagara Falls and internet gambling, but, in the end, what may finally kill it is a simple policy decision made by politicians in Toronto. But I don’t want to talk about that – more than enough people, more qualified than I, have written thousands of pages on the subject. I want to propose that this is just the straw that broke the camel’s back. I want to propose that what actually put horse racing in this precarious position – is me. People talk all the time about buying locally, or the 100-mile diet. Well there are about 10 horse farms in my township for every vegetable farm, orchard or fruit stand. We now have more horses than cattle where I live, and most of them race. I’m going on a 100-mile gambling diet.
So, hang public policy. Forget gambling market penetration studies. There’s something magical and mystical and wonderful about spending a day at the track. As I write this, the season is just kicking off, and as for me, I’m going to vote with my feet. I’ll be a butt in a seat, a voice on the air and a hot dog sale at the snack bar. And when I lose a few bucks at the wicket (sorry dad), I’ll know that I’m supporting thousands of hard working men and women who live right in my community. Please come with me – you won’t regret it.