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How do we choose the tracks we bet?

It’s a complex question that has increasingly little to do with whatever our hometown track might be. The movement toward online wagering was accelerated during Covid-19 shutdowns, when the only tracks available were faraway or closed to spectators. Now, as small tracks hope to rebuild after a difficult 2020, some are making bold moves toward increasing their availability (hello, Inverness!) As horseplayers, our dollars are free to roam the world. 

Tracks with local flavour capture the public imagination, but with tourism still up in the air across Canada, tourists can’t be counted on in summer 2021. The picturesque Circuit Régional des Courses de Chevaux du Québec (CRCQ) tracks have had to adapt, offering two race dates on Horseplayer Interactive (HPI) for the first time, although Maritime availability remains a question mark. (Hippodrome 3R isn’t currently available in Nova Scotia; Quebec’s only full-time racetrack handled a compelling $94,921 for 10 races on Sunday, June 27.) 

Hippodrome 3R track photographer Sylvain Gagnon says the fair dates last year were not available for wagering, but sponsors covered the purses at the only facility to conduct races, 

St-Joseph-de-Lepage (l’Écurie des 4G). It was unable to offer any wagering on the 2020 races, however in summer 2021, this track will host races Saturday, July 17, and the idea is to expand into online wagering. Trackside AmTote services won’t be available there this season, but Horseplayer Interactive will bring St-Joseph-de-Lepage to new customers who have never visited the beautiful venue. This is the home track of Charles Gaudreault, vice-president of the circuit régional.

Other 2021 regional circuit dates await final approval on July 6: Nouvelle July 24 (no wagering); Charlevoix (l'Hippodrome de la Vallée, in Saint-Aimé-des-Lacs) August 15 (AmTote at track, no HPI); Ormstown September 4 (AmTote only); and St.-Esprit September 11 (AmTote only). As Gagnon notes, “The circuit feels that you have to keep the AmTote experience on the fair but wish to help change regulations to include HPI.”

The track photographer, who also works at the CRCCQ venues, says he wants to help cultivate more of a show at the fair races, “where between races, you’re wondering, ‘Why am I not there?’” if you’re watching online. Unlike Maritime matinee races, these CRCCQ events normally allow pari-mutuel wagering. They are unique in Canada,  offering amateur races with regulations, technical support, and AmTote services that exceed those at some regular pari-mutuel tracks. Originally created in 1970, the CRCCQ took its present name in 1989 and has conducted racing at Pabos, Nouvelle, St.-Esprit, Brome, Ormstown, and Ayer’s Cliff. It is a bona fide producer of champion drivers (Louis-Philippe Roy, Dan Dube, Gaetan Lamy, etc.) and horses (Duc d’Orleans, Pablo Angus). 

The Quebec government hasn’t shown support for harness racing, even as the costs associated with putting on live races have gone up. Fewer horses and higher costs associated with travel to these regional tracks have also cut into the number of participants, leading the CRCCQ to examine new ways to promote their future product. The plans include outreach to the Maritimes, particularly New Brunswick, for horses to fill out fields and create more wagering interests. It’s a five-year strategic plan that begins this year, with an eye toward ensuring the Quebec Standardbred industry can sustain itself in the uncertain times ahead. Differentiating itself from the multitude of tracks to bet on HPI will pose a challenge, but once bettors tune in, there will be no mistaking this circuit for anywhere else. If it’s available on HPI, I’m in.

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