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Efforts quietly underway to bring back horseracing to Sudbury Downs

The model being considered in Sudbury was successfully used in Peterborough to revive Kawartha Downs, which, like the Downs, faced closure in 2014.
A weekend meeting at Sudbury Downs could determine whether there will be racing at the racetrack this summer. File photo.
The model being considered in Sudbury was successfully used in Peterborough to revive Kawartha Downs, which, like the Downs, faced closure in 2014. But through the efforts of a turnaround specialist, who was brought in to take another look at how the track was operating, there was racing held in 2014.

Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas got the process started in July, when she asked Jeff Leal, the Liberal's new minister of agriculture, why we had a slots facility – but no racing.

“The minister of agriculture has finally agreed to give Sudbury Downs a second look,” Gélinas said this week. “There is still money that had been offered to Sudbury Downs … that has been saved and put aside for us. So there's close to $7 million on the table right now.”

She said Kawartha was in an almost identical position as Sudbury was in 2013, and had announced that the track was going close. Then the still-unnamed turnaround specialist was brought in to come up with a plan.

“I talked to the minister of agriculture and he agreed to pay to have this guy come up and talk to us,” Gélinas said. “Kawartha is the second-most successful track in Ontario – and he did that in a year.”

He was here Thursday and met with the Pat MacIsaac, whose family owns the Downs. MacIsaac said Friday he didn't want to get anyone's hopes up that a deal was close, but said trying to save racing and boost the local agricultural industry was worth the effort.

“It's a small industry, but it's a significant one to our economy,” MacIsaac said. “So I'm encouraged by it. When harness racing ended at Sudbury Downs, there was at lest 100 full-time equivalent jobs that disappeared.”

Gélinas said the broad plan would see the MacIsaacs rent the facility to the agricultural society, which would then operate the Downs as more than just a racetrack.

“So you could have horse shows, with show jumping,” she said. “There are a lot of riding stables in Nickel Belt, and those people compete and do really well – but never in Sudbury. And that's because we don't have the facilities.”

Fall fairs could be held there, as well, something we don't currently have despite the significant number of farmers in the area.

Bob Bodkin, of the Northern Horsemen's Association, said his group had their meeting Thursday, as well.

“It was just a meeting to basically to tell us what was working in Kawartha,” Bodkin said. “But the nuts and bolts (of how it could work here), we don't know that yet.”

Their biggest single issue, Bodkin said, is finding a way to make stabling (basically, room and board for the horses) affordable for out-of-town drivers. He said it makes little sense for them to
come North, when they would lose money. But if they could stable their horses at the Downs – “basically for free” – then the track would have a fighting chance.

“If we can get stabling, then any kind of deal is possible,” Bodkin said. “It would give us our best chance of attracting horses from down south.”

If the process works, racing could return to the Downs by next spring. But Gélinas said she's an optimist, and is trying to make that happen a lot sooner.

“I would like to see us have some races this fall,” she said. “But by 2015 for sure.”

Darren MacDonald

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