A mobile vaccination clinic would be a huge shot in the arm for horse racing

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Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson is confident that the Ontario government is going recommend that a mobile COVID-19 vaccination site be set up at Woodbine Racetrack in Rexdale.

Perhaps as early as next week.

Lawson said he heard from the Premier’s Office on Friday. However, while he is hopeful that the more than 1,000 employees at the Woodbine backstretch – who are designated essential agricultural workers needed for the care and training of the 1,200 horse stabled at the track – will soon receive a vaccination via a mobile clinic at the track, he is also deeply worried that unless the government takes action soon, there could be a medical catastrophe in the making at the venerable Etobicoke track.

“We’re in a very precarious situation,” Lawson told the Toronto Sun. “And I’m very nervous that unless we get a mobile clinic there – hopefully within the next week – we’re going to have a more difficult situation on our hands. And I’m not being dramatic when I say that. These people are coming to work. They need the pay cheque. But this variant is spreading quickly.”

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Lawson stressed that unlike other industries that employ over 1,000 workers on site, a horse racing track cannot simply shut down for a couple of weeks if there’s a COVID outbreak. That makes the need for vaccinations crucial.

“What are our people going to do if they have a headache? Are they not going to come into work to feed their horses?” Lawson said. “It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And we’ve recognized that. I proposed months ago Woodbine as a mass vaccination site. I got the approval of our board to turn the Woodbine parking lot into a mass vaccination site. We calculated that we could do 4,000 vaccinations a day. We were prepared to donate the security, donate the real estate, refrigeration equipment … and we were going to work with our health contacts to make that happen.”

Lawson said that WE is moving to make sure their workers are paid regardless if they come to work or not. But if there’s an outbreak and hundreds of workers go down, who would look after the horses? Letting them starve is not an option.

“I think the answer to it all is make sure we get 1,000 people vaccinated over a day or two and solve what could be just a very, very precarious and serious outbreak on the Woodbine backstretch,” said Lawson. “But I’m nervous about it.”

Since the pandemic began last spring, Lawson has argued that horse racing should be allowed to operate given the fact that the sport is conducted outdoors and both Woodbine Racetrack in Rexdale (thoroughbreds) and Woodbine Mohawk Park in Milton (standardbreds) have implemented strict healthy and safety protocols that have largely kept the virus at bay. The Provincial government initiated a 28-day stay-at-home order this week, resulting in Woodbine Mohawk suspending racing and the start of the thoroughbred racing season at Woodbine being pushed back from April 17 to May 6. But while horse racing is not allowed and thousands of workers are suffering, golfing is allowed during the current stay-at-home order, and that is something that horse racing people have trouble coming to terms with. Both are outdoor sports.

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Ontario is one of the very few jurisdictions in the world that has put the brakes on horse racing during the pandemic, resulting in huge financial hardships for the thousands of track workers, most of whom live pay cheque to pay cheque. Horse racing’s track record in Ontario in keeping the COVID-19 virus at bay during the pandemic has been outstanding. But with variants on the rise and the Woodbine property situated right in a middle of a COVID-19 hot zone, Lawson said it’s crucial that track workers get their shots.

More than 300 of the backstretch workers at Woodbine actually live on-site in dormitories.

“We are appreciative of the difficult situation that the government’s in with COVID-19, including with the intensive care bed situation,” said Lawson. (As of Friday, there were 552 COVID-19 patients in Intensive Care Units in Ontario). “At the same time we have an industry that’s outside, that’s proven to be safe. The impact (shutting down racing) is going to have on people’s lives …. it’s a very desperate situation. But the more we talk about it, the more hopefully the message is going to get through and the government is going to step up and do something about it. Because it’s getting to be a very desperate situation. We need people to get vaccinated.”

Horse racing officials the world over are puzzled with the Ontario government’s stand during the pandemic.

“I live in New Jersey and we’ve certainly had our share of troubles with the virus – perhaps as much as any in North America. But the government here has recognized the importance of the industry,” Jim Gagliano, President and CEO of the Jockey Club, told the Sun on Friday. “The horses are getting cared for every day in the morning and race in the afternoon, and there is likely no more risk in that. Of the race tracks (in the U.S.) that restarted early last summer, they have more or less continued on the entire time safely. Some have even opened for fans with certain restrictions. I know that management at Woodbine is world-class in the way that they care for their facilities and their people. And I’m confident that any whatever safety (protocols) that they have in place, they would at least meet the average standards that have been safely executed here in the United States.”

SBuffery@postmedia.com
Twitter @Beezersun

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