Back in the sulky

One of the things that I treat myself to are harness races. It goes way back to the first days in Clinton where the track is right next to the swimming pool, where I worked.

It’s a magnificent sport with incredible athletes in the sulky but, more importantly, pulling the sulky and driver. Over the years, I’ve visited many tracks in Ontario…

Afternoons/Evenings at Windsor, Leamington, Dresden, Clinton, Goderich, Hanover, Elmira, Western Fair, Grand River, Mohawk, Greenwood, Garden City, Flamboro, Barrie, Orangeville, Kawartha Downs, Rideau-Carleton all come to mind.

Windsor, in particular, was great with its big races and so many farms. When Google Earth was big, we’d use it to locate farms that have tracks for training. It’s way more than you might think.

Sadly, many of the tracks above have permanently closed. Because of the situation with COVID-19, those that remain are currently closed. Normally, I’d be looking forward to Sunday drives to Dresden and later this summer to Leamington to enjoy an afternoon at the track. For the longest time, it looked like racing wasn’t going to happen.

But, like many things, there’s a ray of sunshine in terms of opening. Ontario Racing has done their work and released conditions under which tracks might open. You can read details here. Like most things that are re-opening, they’re not going back to business as usual any time soon.

A day at the track is more than just the races for me. I like to think of myself as a people watcher and an analytic. I’ll get there way early to find a spot to analyze the program and watch people come in and prepare for the afternoon. Since Dresden and Leamington are smallish tracks, you get to know the faces that are there regularly and how and where they spend the afternoon. We’re such creatures of habit.

Small tracks try harder too. It’s a big event for the t-shirt toss, local apple growers giving away apple and cider, hot buttered corn on the cob, watching a budding teenager have the chance to call some races, reliving the excitement that Marty Adler brings to the race when he calls or the special day when Roger Huston does a guest appearance at the track.

Race tracks are great places to have a bit to eat. Hamburgers, sausages, and breaded dill pickles are delicacies in Leamington. I remember a long time ago going to Mohawk with my dad and wife and ordering hamburgers. My wife mentioned how tasty they were and was enjoying it until dad told her this is where the slowest horses end up.

If you know Essex County, you know that we’re just flat. My watch gets a workout counting floors as I go up and down the steps in the grandstand for every race. You pass a lot of people this way, often sitting in the same seats week after week.

The common thread for all these events and activities within the event is there are a lot of people all together at the same time. That luxury shouldn’t exist anywhere in our current environment.

During the shutdown, all of these things went away. Eventually, there was some racing available from Sweden and Denmark to watch. I got a real appreciation for the announcer skills as I tried to follow a race in another language. It was through one of the sites that I read ( – not for the faint of heart) that I heard that racing was about to re-open in Scioto Downs in Cincinnati.

With great anticipation, I watched the races there via live stream on Monday night. It’s not quite the same – not sitting in a grandstand with all those people and dill pickle Pringles chips instead of the real stuff but it was nice to see. Just like going grocery shopping these days, things have changed. It wasn’t racing as per usual. Ohio obviously has their own set of rules but this is what I noticed, watching from afar.

  • there were no spectators lining the fence watching
  • there were no horse people in the back stretch watching from the barn
  • when warming up, the drivers kept their horses away from each other rather than driving next to each other chatting or trash talking or whatever happens normally
  • the only close contact I witnessed was a starter’s assistant who helped line up a horse who needed some help
  • the owners and trainer did not show up in the winner’s circle for the mandatory winner’s photo. The driver essentially slowed down for a quick picture and that was it for the celebration
  • there were no stream of horses out warming up between races

Other than that, it was a nice night of racing. The program was online so that I could check the past performance of horses and driver. The times were impressive. I saw a race go in 1:52 which is very fast. World record is 1:47. I read somewhere that the total amount bet was the second most in the track’s history. If success is defined by getting the horses and drivers on the track, engaging an audience, and handle wagering, then it looks like things worked out well.

I think I’m going to enjoy watching races from Dresden and Leamington, even if it’s at home on the computer. It’s definitely going to be different. I’ll miss the nice drive to get there, chatting with people sitting near me, and watching the winning owners getting their picture taken. I won’t be able to catch a t-shirt or have a cup of cider sponsored by someone else.

We already know that rules are different for grocery shopping or any of the other things that we have been accustomed to. Potentially dangerous activities like getting a hair cut or dining at a restaurant are still on the horizon.

The bottom line is that these folks are making things work in the different world. It would be super easy to just close everything down and blame it on the virus. But, with reasoned people and thinking in place, they’ve made it happen.

I think by now you know where this post is headed. Schools aren’t racetracks. It’s certainly going to be more different in terms of the logistics to re-open schools. But, I would suggest that it can happen if we decide to re-think everything. Those making plans need to put their feet into little shoes and work their way through an entire day. It doesn’t just begin and end at the school’s entrance. Teachers need to be vocal about the issues and realities they see each and every day. Their voices, wisdom, and experience need to be valued more now than ever. I think we all know that a top-down made-in-Toronto solution won’t suffice. All voices need to be heard.

It won’t be school as usual. We have an opportunity to re-think everything. All input needs to be accepted and valued.

It’s not going to be perfect at first but step by step, refinement by refinement, a solution that works can be found. It should be found. It needs to be found.


3 thoughts on “Back in the sulky

  1. Doug, I love this post! You’re so right. Teaching and school is about more than just the learning in the classroom. I shared this tweet yesterday about an experience from our online session:

    It’s really a tweet and a sub-tweet. As we were listening to this conversation (and trying hard to hold back the tears), I kept wondering, “How long do we let this go? Could it last for the whole class? As wonderful as I think this is, will parents watching in now, agree? Or will they be waiting for their mini-lesson?” And this was the hard point for me, for this social learning is HUGE in kindergarten. The ability to include others, respond to others, pose questions, and solve problems along the way are so many of the things we strive for. Getting this to happen in unstructured situations is key, and will this still be able to happen in our classrooms, during recesses, or via hallway chats? So much makes up a whole day at school, and I wonder how we’re going to make all of these little moments work too.



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