Last February was a time of confusion and upheaval for Truro Raceway. Horsepeople, staff, and fans/bettors were blindsided as the longstanding, if dysfunctional, relationship between the Raceway and the Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition (NSPE) was abruptly terminated. General Manager Joe Nicholson was one of 17 employees let go the same day. A few tellers were soon hired back to run track- affiliated teletheatres during the off season.
The track emerged with new, independent management, and changes to the status quo. A revised board of directors and staff list was released March 26, 2018: President, Anthony Stymest; Vice-President, Arnold Hagen; Secretary-Treasurer, Jeff Skinner; Truro Harness Horse Owners’ Association Director,
Steve Morton; General Manager, Kelly MacEachen; and Accounts, Darlene Cail.
Behind the scenes, NS Agriculture Minister Keith Colwell saw that drastic changes were necessary; from his perspective, Truro Raceway’s business model was broken. (Colwell is also Minister responsible for the Maritime Provinces Harness Racing Commission Act.) He commissioned an independent study from The Sullivan Group of Lindsay, Ontario, in hopes of better understanding what he observed at the three Nova Scotian pari-mutuel tracks: “[Inverness Raceway and Northside Downs] were making money; Truro wasn’t making money.”
Gregory Walling is managing director/owner of The Sullivan Group. He has a background as a consultant on small harness tracks in Ontario, and is known for helping prevent the 2014 closure of Kawartha Downs. The Ontario Racing Commission also hired him to investigate ways of reviving dormant Sudbury Downs that year. In September 2017, Walling resigned as Special Advisor on horse racing to the then-Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Jeff Leal (Liberal). In his resignation letter, he led with the following recommendation to government: “Continue to fight for the smaller regional tracks as they are the development ground of horses, drivers and owners. They are important to their communities and are a vital part of the ongoing success of the industry. Ensure their voices are heard.” (Walling was contacted for this article; he said he was willing but unable to comment on the NS industry report until it becomes public.)
Colwell’s objective in contracting The Sullivan Group was creating “sustainable harness racing in the province”, through uncovering the numbers behind the tracks and their functionality. “It was done about a year ago, to give us an idea of where we stand on the tracks,” the minister tells Atlantic Post Calls. “It’s a business-minded look at it. […] We want the industry to do well.”
The report will be released to the three NS tracks first, then the public, after findings are assessed and/or implemented over the course of 2019. Colwell says the report is currently private because it contains recommendations for business plans at the provincial pari-mutuel tracks. Active NS matinee tracks Venture Downs, Port Hood Raceway, and Sport Pugwash were not part of the study.
A year after the Raceway/NSPE split and the commissioning of the Sullivan Group report, Colwell says he likes what he sees at the Bible Hill track. “It’s coming around now. It’s a whole different approach there. The harness racing guys are looking after their own thing now.”
Mandatory separation from the Exhibition sent a confusing message back in February 2018. A year later, the Liberal MLA for Preston-Dartmouth notes that the takeover was for the long-term health of Truro Raceway: “We never had any intention at all of closing the track. […] If we didn’t take it over, it would have been shut down. It was the only thing that stopped it going to bankruptcy. Within the next year, we’re going to take a look at improving the facility, to make it a real attraction.”
A series of controversial demolitions on the Raceway grounds generated concern among many horsepeople last year. Colwell says that the condition of the structures left him with little choice. “We tore down some of the old barns because they were dangerous,” he notes. “One of them, we touched with the excavator, and the whole thing came down.” No further backstretch buildings are facing demolition, he confirms—“four or five” were safety hazards that needed to come down last year, despite some opposing voices. Lack of upkeep had rendered the barns too far gone to renovate: “The place was basically ignored for years and years.”
Truro Raceway had a longstanding reputation for neglecting finances, as well as buildings. In January 2014, it was announced that the NSPE owed $420,000 to the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board, and a financial audit was ordered by Colwell. One or more previous NSPE boards of directors had failed to account for free spending ways at the Raceway, and there was $1.1-million in accumulated debt. The Agriculture Minister tells APC that there was poor documentation of where money was going. “Tons of [financial records] were missing, but it’s a whole different game there now. […] Pretty well the whole debt problem is resolved now,” he confirms. “Now it’s just operating stuff [which requires funding].”
The difficult decision to fire Raceway employees last February was based primarily on one factor: “Less overhead—that’s one reason why people were let go. It was a business decision, nothing else.” (Colwell observes that the better financial situation at Northside Downs and Inverness Raceway is partly because both facilities “have really good management” and a strong base of volunteers.)
The CA Douglas Grandstand was a focal point of struggles in 2018. It fell under ownership of the Exhibition, not the Raceway, and therefore had to be rented to use on specific race dates. Colwell says there’s “no lease yet”, but all that needs to be arranged now is a structured agreement. “They [the Raceway] have use of the grandstand and keys for it. They do have a lease for the land and barns, the track itself and past the track.” He adds that the Exhibition is updating the grandstand, which was rebuilt in 1982 after a serious fire: “We have some maintenance and efficiency measures we’re working on. Nothing was ever done on any of those.”
Because his portfolio involves a significant amount of travel (to trade shows, conferences, etc.), Colwell says a government representative will take his place at the March 16 Truro Raceway banquet. But he adds that he is firmly committed to helping Truro Raceway overcome the turmoil of its recent past. “We would like to make it a centre for excellence in agriculture and horse racing,” he says, adding that building Inverness, Northside, and Truro as viable businesses comes before all other considerations—Standardbred breeding, partnerships with other provinces, matinee races, etc. He sums up his approach in a single sentence: “If the track doesn’t survive, the breeder has no business.”
Although not a horsemen or from a racing family, the minister views the NS Standardbred industry as worth protecting and encouraging, for future generations and now. “You go down to the barn, and the whole family is there with the horse,” he says, clearly impressed by one of the only truly multi-generational sports. “The kids are all proud about their horses. It’s a family sport. It raises great kids.” While fiscal responsibility and sound business practices remain essential to Nova Scotia racetracks, so do these priceless elements which motivate most participants far more than dollars alone.