The community that ensures Woodbine Racetrack thrives

by Mark Medley, National Post

A procession of cars make the turn off Grand­stand Entrance Road and pass the security checkpoint as they slowly drive down the main road of the Woodbine backstretch. It is only 5:40 a.m., but the flow of vehicles suggests that, at this hour, the racetrack is one of the busiest places in the city. Headlights cut through the pre-dawn darkness, briefly illuminating horses trotting down the side of the road, riders perched on top, making their way from the stables to the track.

The backstretch is a village within the city; a self-sustaining community lost in the shadows of Woodbine’s soaring grandstands, where people not only work but live, and which comes alive while most of Toronto sleeps. From grooms to exercise riders, blacksmiths to hot walkers, more than 2,000 people work on the 187-acre backstretch, 300 of whom reside here permanently during racing season. The population doubles when you take into account the approximately 2,100 horses stabled here.

Tom Cosgrove, director of thoroughbred racing since 2005, is the mayor of this town. Walking the backstretch’s muddy roads, where hoof prints outnumber footprints 20 to 1, Cosgrove greets almost everyone by name. (“If I don’t know them, they haven’t been around here long enough,” he says). Cosgrove has worked at Woodbine for 41 years; he started mucking stalls when he was 19, and just turned 61.

“The bad news is, I have a disease,” he says gravely. “The good news is, there’s no cure.”

It is raining lightly as Cosgrove walks through the intersection of Dance Smartly Street and Deputy Minister Avenue (“This is Portage and Main,” he explains) and wanders over to the stables of trainer Ian Black. Aline Allain, a 26-year-old groom, is soaping and hosing down a five-year-old grey named Wollemi Pine, fresh from a practice run; steam rises off the horse like he’s on fire.

In another stall, blacksmith Char­lie Baumann outfits a huge six-year-old named Likely with new shoes. One of about a dozen farriers on-site, Baumann, who’s worked at Woodbine since 1979, shoes two to three horses a day; they require new shoes every four weeks. He takes a leg and grips it between his thighs, pries off the old shoe, then cuts and files the hoof flat. He grabs shoes out of his toolbox until he finds one that fits, then hammers it quickly into the hoof. The horse doesn’t flinch.
“If he feels this, he’ll clear you and me out of this shed,” Baumann says.

Those who work on the Woodbine backstretch regularly cite passion as a motivating factor, but even the most passionate cannot deny it’s a life of long hours, hard work and unpredictable pay: Allain works with the same five horses from 4:30 to 11:30 every morning, and receives 1% of Black’s winnings on top of her wage. Still, there’s nowhere in the world she’d rather be: “Even if you’re having a bad day,” she says, sneaking mints to another horse named Rahy’s Attorney, “you look at one and you’re OK again.”

There’s an old saying, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man,” attributed to both Winston Churchill and Will Rogers. On this morning, however, it’s recited by Shawn Kennedy, Woodbine’s chaplain. The 52-year-old has been a horseman all his life: His father was a trainer; Kennedy himself was an amateur jockey and trained horses for a decade. He still rides every day.

“Horse racing is a love affair that drives you crazy,” he says. “There’s times that the sport seems unbelievably cruel, and yet, where else would you rather be?”

His background gives him a better understanding of the problems faced by those who work and live on the backstretch: “I know what people go through on those bad days.” And there are bad days. The biggest problem on the track, however, isn’t drug abuse, alcoholism or gambling, Kennedy says. “The No. 1 problem is loneliness.”

On the eastern edges of the backstretch stand a pair of dormitories that house approximately 300 workers, though jockeys and trainers are not allowed to live here.

“This is for people who don’t make a lot of money, because you don’t make a lot of money grooming horses,” says Donna Duda, director of housing. It’s an odd juxtaposition: Less than a mile away are state-of-the-art stables housing horses owned by some of Canada’s wealthiest citizens, like Frank Stronach and Eugene Melnyk. The dorms have been home to people from all over the world: Dubai, Japan, India, though a large percentage of workers hail from the Caribbean.

A Jamaican flag hangs in the window of Tony Williams’ first-floor room, where he’s enjoying a drink and watching TV with his friend Christopher Garraway.

“I just go about my business,” says Williams, 43. “Just work, come back home, relax.”

“West Indians are laid back,” adds Garraway, who lives off-track. “A bunch of us get together, everybody chips in, buy some beers, play music, cook food.”

Williams pays $50 a week for his modest room, which he shares with a roommate. Like many of the workers, Williams has been around horses all his life. He recalls his childhood in Jamaica, skipping school and heading to the races; he apprenticed at a farm before moving to Trinidad, and eventually got work in Canada. He’s an exercise rider, putting the horses through their paces in the early hours of the morning, but he’d like to be a trainer.

Just outside the door, enjoying a cigarette, stands Frank Belanger. A rider and a blacksmith, Belanger, 45 (“I think”), has lived at the track for 10 years, and worked at Woodbine for 30. He’s in no rush to move on.

“It’s not just a job, it’s a vocation,” he says. “The animals are so gratifying. They’re honest, they don’t lie to you. And when you try hard for them, they try hard for you.”

Trying hard isn’t an option, Belanger points out, it’s a necessity. At Woodbine, the horse is king.

“Having horses is like having kids ... they really depend on you,” he says. “When the horses need something, you gotta be there, 24/7.”


Racetrack chaplain ministers to a 'lost city'
by Robert White, christenweek.com

Chaplain Shawn Kennedy describes Woodbine, located in northwest Toronto, as a "lost city." The country's premier racetrack employees 1,800 people and stables 2,500 horses—many treated better than the human employees.

"This industry is geared to the horse," says Kennedy. "The horse comes first. The horse always has the right of way.

"After looking after an expensive horse, you don't feel like much after a while."

As a former trainer and amateur jockey who grew up in the horseracing industry—his father was a "gentleman horseman"—Kennedy understands the tier system that leads to the track's biggest problem: loneliness.

"It isn't a glamorous environment. Walking through the barns there's the sweet smell of success, but it ain't what you'd expect," says Kennedy, who describes his spiritual journey as more of a "time warp."

"I was driving one day and I had this, for lack of a better term, vision of myself as a little dot in a dark universe. It really had a huge impact on me. I started reading more about the Scripture and made a conscious decision to believe in God and accept Christ as my Saviour."

Within a year Kennedy was a full-time youth pastor and volunteer chaplain at Winnipeg's Assiniboia Downs. Hired as a youth pastor in Kansas in 2000, four years later he heard the call of the racetrack again. The Racetrack Chaplaincy of Canada was looking for a chaplain at Woodbine to complement the one at Mohawk so both of Ontario's key thoroughbred and harness tracks would be covered.

From his office in a converted garage affectionately called "The Jake" (the Jake Howard Centre name after a former Woodbine board chair), Kennedy oversees the ministry's chapel and counselling services, computer and language courses, resource library and clothing depot.

"A big part of this ministry is just trying to do normal human things for people," he says. Similar to a hospital or prison chaplain, Kennedy spends most of his time building relationships.

"I walk the barn area just to bump into people and see how they're doing. Some people I need to check up on to see if they're still there and relatively sober." With the loneliness often comes drug and alcohol abuse. Kennedy work includes help those who want to get back to work at the track.

Other key ministries are hospital work, palliative care and funerals.

"We had two people pass away [recently]—one who was in palliative care for quite a while. I had the chance to minister to him on his deathbed.

"Before there was a chaplain it was basically rent-a-pastor," says Kennedy. Now he's able to give God a human face by saying, 'I know this person, I've talked [and] walked with this person.'"

Kennedy also finds himself in ER trauma rooms where he's asked to pray for injured jockeys.

"Hospitals are grateful for that kind of presence—especially with the bad ones—realizing they need all the help they can get."

Kennedy quotes Ron Foxcroft, former basketball referee and the inventor of the Fox 40 whistle, who said the role of the referee amongst the chaos of injured players, screaming fans and yelling coaches is to be the one person in control.

"I think as a chaplain, I've got to bring that same thing in these situations—especially in the hospital where there isn't an answer, where there's anxiety, where there's fear," says Kennedy.

Show archives