Harness racing in Manitoba has added some new towns to its circuit this year, but other Westman mainstays are out, largely due to a lack of volunteer interest, organizers say.
Deloraine and Wawanesa, both with a some 100 years of history participating in the sport have said they won’t be stops on the 22-day circuit this year.
“The towns are having more trouble all the time getting volunteers to put this on,” said Darryl Mason, president of the Manitoba Great Western Harness Racing Circuit. “That’s the No. 1 problem with holding races.
“It’s always a disappointment when we lose towns, our horsemen are disappointed, but you have to understand that in every town, things change and we have to respect that. But we are disappointed that we are missing the two towns.”
Mason said the towns’ absences aren’t permanent, but added he doesn’t yet know what can be done to bring them back onto the schedule in future years.
Ross Chambers of Wawanesa’s agricultural society said there are no horses training in the town right now — and haven’t for at least three years.
“Volunteers are hard to get, so we decided to take a break and see what happens,” he said. “It’s a fairly difficult thing in small towns to operate.
“We’re just going to wait and see.”
During Wawanesa’s harness racing heyday, upwards of 20 horses came out of the town, Chambers said.
This is the second year Deloraine has said it isn’t participating, according to organizers, after funding from the province came in at the last minute last year.
“We didn’t even know if we were going to race last year,” Mason said, and Deloraine’s agriculture society opted out of the circuit and planned its race track season without harness racing, he added.
“It went over quite well, so they went back to that this year and didn’t feel they could have the volunteers.”
“Nobody got paid for the first few weeks of racing last year,” Mason said as a result of the late provincial funding.
In years past, the province’s agricultural societies have received cash through Manitoba Lotteries, but in recent years have received money through the province’s agriculture department.
This year, funds from the province is changing yet again.
Societies now will get a chunk of money handed over to the province from revenue generated from the Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Mason said.
“So it’s coming from horse racing, back to horse racing and that’s what we’ve been after for a number of years because we don’t want to be funded by public money, we want to funded by the money that horse racing generates.”
Grants in years past have fluctuated, but it’s generally been around the $400,000 mark the last few years.
Along with government funding close to being secured for this year, there’s optimism among organizers for the future of the sport.
Morris and Selkirk are likely going to be added to the tour this year and racers will take a break at some point in the season and head to Yorkton, Sask., which has had its own battles securing provincial cash.
Killarney, Glenboro and Miami will also remain on the circuit, though a schedule hasn’t been finalized yet.
Dave Mooney, who sits on the board of the Manitoba Harness Horseman Inc. said the future of the sport is bright despite the lack of two Westman towns this year.
“(The sport) goes back 100 years,” he said. “It’s had its ups and downs,” adding Manitoba has one of the largest rural circuits in Canada.
“It’s alive and well and expanding.”
And the province is producing renowned racers as well.
Travis Cullen, originally from Glenboro, was recently awarded the O’Brian Future Star award — the Stanley Cup of the harness racing world, as Mooney put it.
Now living in Edmonton, Manitoba’s own Cullen has made a splash on circuits in Alberta.
“He’s done extremely well out in Alberta, he was a top trainer by a wide margin and he’s just 20 years old and he was raised right in Glenboro,” Mooney said.
The harness racing season generally starts at the end of June and runs until early September with eight races on 22 weekend days.
Around 100 horses are gate-ready this year.
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