Melissa Keith

Nothing stirs controversy like unanswered questions.

Throughout Old Home Week, one particular question kept circulating: Where was the Nova Scotia government - commissioned harness racing business study from 2018? Recent inquiries to the office of provincial Agriculture Minister Keith Colwell have been acknowledged as received, but left unanswered. The report was produced by Ontario consultant Greg Walling, managing director and owner of The Sullivan Group. He’s studied other harness tracks dealing with tough circumstances, such as Kawartha Downs and Sudbury Downs, and was contracted by Colwell’s office to bring that racing business-specific expertise to an examination of Truro Raceway, Inverness Raceway, and Northside Downs.

Unfortunately, as of August 28, 2019, Greg Walling confirmed via e-mail that he remained contractually unable to comment on the NS harness racing business report.

Robyn Crowe, Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Harness Racing Industry Association, said that while she assisted Greg Walling “extensively during his work” on the study, the consultant has not been able to share the results with her organization, either.

Crowe noted via e-mail that she has not received or read the report, although the NSHRIA has formally requested it. During meetings with the NSHRIA Executive Director, Minister Colwell did not offer any additional information about when and to whom the business study will be released. “I can't really provide any further information at this time, as it is confidential at our board level at this point in time, but I can say that the NSHRIA is working on a move forward plan,” Crowe stated.

One would hope that the report surfaces prior to the September 26 meeting of the NSHRIA in Antigonish. In an interview for this column earlier this year (March 2019), the provincial Agriculture minister revealed the report “was done about a year ago, to give us an idea of where we stand on the tracks. It’s a business-minded look at it. […] We want the industry to do well.” He said the study objective was gathering the data to help build “sustainable harness racing in the province” at each of the three pari-mutuel racetracks.

At the time, Minister Colwell said that confidentiality was required due to the proprietary business information contained in the study, and that the report would eventually become public (in some form) after being distributed to the people in charge at the three provincial tracks.

As of this week, I can confirm that at least two of the three tracks (likely all three, although I did not speak with anyone from Northside Downs) have not received the report. At least one Freedom of Information request form has been filed with Nova Scotia Information Access and Privacy Services, to no avail as of September 16. Brett Revington, Atlantic Provinces Harness Racing Commission Director of Racing, said via e-mail that he had not been informed about the NS report as of last weekend (September 14), but he would inquire with APHRC Chairman Frank Balcom this week about it. Revington noted he had participated in a PEI report being prepared this year, which was not yet released.

The NSHRIA meeting, next Thursday at 1 pm at the Maritime Inn, is a members-only AGM, said Executive Director Crowe. Perhaps the study will be revealed at the session, although this is by no means expected. There won’t be media in attendance, but one hopes that the veil of secrecy around the provincial report about the tracks as business entities will not extend to this closed meeting as well. A past media release described the NSHRIA as “a non-profit organization that brings together representatives of the Nova Scotia harness racing community to advance and promote the industry of harness racing within the province.” Advancement and promotion must happen in the open, for transparency (visible integrity) and to meet the mandate of attracting people to the sport.

Back in 2018, a Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency representative said the agency was “unable to comment on the profitability of provincial racetracks” or to provide specific business data on individual tracks. This is the very information that is reputedly part of Walling’s report. Whenever it sees the light of day, even in the partially-redacted form one would expect in its wide-release version, the study will be a helpful step in the right direction for Nova Scotia racing. It will inform racetrack management’s decisions for the better at all three tracks, and put an end to the suspense and speculation that surround it now.

Other Items:

1. Apologies to Sport Pugwash racing connections Eileen Shortliffe and Clayton Stevens: Eileen and I had briefly talked about the possibility of a September matinee card at the Cumberland County track where they are based. Unfortunately, my schedule and Hurricane Dorian pre-empted the date that we had discussed back in July. It would be great to see matinee races return to the mainland’s only active matinee track, which last raced in 2017, but there is work that needs to be done to make it happen. If others are interested, please mention to Eileen or Clayton when you see them at Truro Raceway. It might not happen this season, but there’s nothing wrong with planning well in advance for summer 2020 races. (I remain committed to volunteering.)

2. Another trackside conversation this summer at Truro Raceway raised the question of Malabrigo’s relatives. Malabrigo’s half-sister Jeramaya (p, 7, 1:52.3f;  $196,606 US), by Jeremes Jet, won her last two starts at Freehold Raceway for trainer Nick Surick and driver Joe Bongiorno. Jeramaya has three wins this year, all at the New Jersey half-mile where she’s been based. Her most recent win was on September 13: The Lots Abunny daughter beat distaff non-winners of $2,500 L5, going for a purse of $5,000, winning by four-and-a-quarter lengths, in 1:57.3h.

Malabrigo’s only son, Malvolio (p, 2, 1:55.3f) has been performing respectably in Ontario: The two-year-old Bettors Delight gelding tired and finished fifth from post #7 in his last start, a two-year-old non-winners of $7,500 lifetime race at Rideau-Carleton. But he was on a three-race win streak at the Ottawa track before that, for current owner/trainer Randy Scott and three different catch drivers (Stephane Brosseau, Bob McClure, and Marie-Claude Auger).

3. Congratulations to the Wont Back Down Stable on the newest acquisition, four-year-old pacing mare Asfastasmysister (p, 4, 1:58.3h; $25,997). The Pet Rock daughter won in 2:00.1h at Truro Raceway September 6, then finished second to Camco Willow on September 13, for her new owners, with trainer “Wink” McCallum and driver Darren Crowe.

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