The race card has an average purse of about $1000. Horseman have shipped their horses from four or five different Canadian Provinces. The afternoon card has 12 races, then after a short break, there are 12 more tilts for the evening card.
Parking is $3. You can get a hot dog and a coke for a decent price. You can see pigs and ducks and cows from the 4H club, buy home made dog biscuits, see horse pulls, buy fresh strawberry jam, pick up some homemade soap, ride a ferris wheel.
Welcome to Old Home Week at the Charlottetown Driving Park, in beautiful Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
"How do they survive with these purses?", asks my date for the evening, who is used to watching races at Mohawk with a $22,000 purse. "They are horseman for the most part who do it for the love of the sport", answers Harness Racing PEI's General Manager, Jeremy Pierce.
Seeing that it costs $40+ for a bridge toll, a buck a litre for gasoline, and time and all the rest, one would have to love the game to participate. You certainly are not getting rich, even with a very nice horse. I figure Jeremy was not kidding.
The crowd this week is pretty huge by any standard, and they are energized to play racing. On Monday - a normal day of the week - they will bet over $70,000 on-track. For Saturday's races which includes the Gold Cup and Saucer, they will bet tons more on track. It seems half the town is here.
In comparison, slots-fuelled Woodstock Raceway in Ontario will card a $20,000 Open pace, have well over $100,000 in purses in a given day, and bet ten thousand the entire card.
Heading into the track, right away I was struck by the easiness of life here and the hospitality of virtually everyone around me. Not only is the staff second to none but the participants seem genuinely happy to have the privilege of racing a horse. If you sit upstairs at Woodbine or Mohawk and a horse comes third (and pick up $5000 for the check) it is not uncommon to hear an owner curse out a driver or a fellow participant for everyone to hear. It tends to make my blood boil, because we don't know how good we have it. I must say I did not hear much of that in my evening in PEI. It's slower, more laid back, and people do not seem to take themselves too seriously.
Think Toronto...... but the exact opposite of it.
As for the folks who run the event, I can not say enough about how hard they try. Their simulcast feed is excellent, with top shelf graphics (seriously, as good as you will see anywhere). On-track there are several people manning the mics, offering tips and suggestions, and it seems almost all of them who are working have a harness racing background. The "walk-around-with-the-mic and talk to people" gal's grandfather raced horses right in Charlottetown for many years, and she did a great job in front of the camera. Our hostess too had racing in her roots, and spoke glowingly that her 5 year old son loves harness racing and can "hear Vance Cameron's race calls from his bedroom", only a few miles away. (Speaking of Vance Cameron I am not sure there is a better harness caller in North America. He could make a snail race sound exciting.) It is one of those places where everyone knows someone and they all have a single thing in common - in this case, of course, that thing is harness racing.
So I do speak glowingly of my first trip to the Island, and the show they put on there. I tried my best to bet some money, tip the staff, support the product; and I will try to do the same this Saturday when the Gold Cup and Saucer is covered on HPITV. I hope you give it a shot as well. If we do not support tracks and events like this, our sport suffers, and a little slice of our history is lost.
If you are looking for a seven star meal, a $500 wine list, and expect to see a Sheik with a racehorse worth more than the GDP of some countries, this ain't gonna be it. If you are looking for a little harness racing, in a place that they have raced since 1888, for small purses, for the love of the sport, with a staff who says please and thanks quite often, I can not recommend it more.
My best wishes to everyone racing this week; and to everyone whom I got to meet during my time there - thanks very much for your hospitality and good cheer. I hope I can return the favour one day.
There are three trials before the big Gold Cup and Saucer Final that goes this Saturday. Here is trial number two raced last week for a look and listen if you are interested.