Ohio harness racers adapted to the pandemic

By Madi Kregel, OCJ field reporter 

             The last year certainly made life challenging for anyone trying to plan events, and, as a result, 2020 created coutless challenges for any industries that depend on those events for financial viability. The Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association (OHHA) has around 35,000 members, with around 65 different venues for racing. The majority of those venues are county and independent fairs. So like many during the shutdown in March, the OHHA and horse breeders were left scrambling to find answers. 

            Steve Bateson, President of the OHHA said going into the pandemic felt like “stepping into the twilight zone” after going from a weekly racing schedule to a complete stop. 

            “For those that are involved in our industry, they are enthralled with it, it’s their livelihood,” Bateson said. “So when we were shut down, all of these farms that are in training continued to train and feed their horses and employ their people and they had no place to race. For our industry it was pretty nerve racking because, not to say we operate on the edge, but most of our industry doesn’t have the ability to just sit idle for months and months, and be able to pay bills without any money coming in.”

Bateson equated the halt in harness racing events to putting a race car away in a garage. With horses, it’s impossible to put them away in a barn and wait until the season starts again. During the shutdown many breeders were left to feed and care for their horses with little income coming in because there were no racing events for those two months. 

            “That’s kind of what happened with our industry. These horses are bred to perform, and trained to perform and that performance that they do is racing,” Bateson said.

Bateson gave some insight on what a typical racing year looks like for a breeder or owner. 

“It all depends on the racer and what they want to focus on. So let’s say I’m a young horse trainer focused on buying yearlings from farms like Cool Wind Farms in Lima, Ohio. So, I will begin looking at those yearlings in late summer, go to those sales, and begin buying yearlings in August and September,” he said.

Unlike humans, all horses have a birthday on Jan. 1. According to Bateson, there is a day in which the horse was born or foaled, but all of the horse’s health records and tracking begin on Jan. 1. The horses born in March of 2020 became yearlings on Jan. 1, 2021. A yearling is not raced until it is two years old. 

“So what happens after the sales, after you buy these yearlings, you break them and start training them and prepping them, getting them ready for the next year’s staking season. So you’ll spend most of the winter just logging miles, getting their legs built up, teaching them proper etiquette, wearing different types of equipment and preparing them for the next racing season,” Bateson said. 

The younger yearling horses are raced from April to October. Those who race horses older than the yearling age tend to race their horses year round, depending on the owner and horse. Bateson said the process is ongoing and similar to the process of buying a show calf or lamb. 

“You’re going out and looking at your pedigrees and looking at what’s going to be the best presentation of an animal you can have in the show ring,” Bateson said. “When you’re buying a calf is very similar when you’re buying a young yearling.”

The events of the last year created plenty of adversity, but Bateson said for the OHHA, it was all about communication. 

“We were trying to get information out that was accurate, that was timely, to keep people abreast to what was going on. Because there was a tremendous amount of anxiety amongst owners and racers as to if there was a light at the end of the tunnel, or how we were going get through this,” he said. “I think what we did through social media most definitely helped, and I think once we got through the shutdown period everyone could kind of see that everything was going to be okay.”

The OHHA worked at creating a plan of action for when the state finally opened up again. 

            “What we tried to do, as best as we could, was to come up with protocols. Our executive director, Renee Mansino, worked very closely with the racing commission here in Ohio, and we tried to do the best we could so we could reopen when the opportunity was given, and do it in a safe fashion,” Bateson said. 

            The industry started the summer with limited fans at the races held, most at county and independent fairs. However, by midsummer when Governor DeWine ordered no spectators at the fairs, many horse owners and breeders were left without a way to watch their horses race. That challenge required additional adjustments.

            “We as an organization did some filming, and we have done things like this in the past where we selectively picked fairs throughout the years,” he said. “Facebook Live was the social media we used.” 

            The livestreaming of the races from June to August were posted to YouTube as well, and were filmed using HD quality cameras. 

            “We had a crew, and we ramped it up and we virtually hit every county fair in the state. We may not have been able to hit both days, but in most cases we were able to at least be there one day and show those races live,” Bateson said. “And we got better as the year went on. We had some events in which we had nearly 1,000 people watching live, and within a week of the event, it wasn’t uncommon to have 4,000 to 5,000 views on those fairs.”

When it comes to the horse breeders, money generated from racing the horses eventually adds up. So, continuing to have races with the original advertised purse money gave some hope for the rest of 2020 for those breeders, Bateson said.

“I think in June a lot of people thought it was going to be really devastating toward our breeding aspect,” Bateson said. “As it turned out, I think that we were able to race throughout the summer, in many cases without fans, but we were able to race and get some money pushed back into some of these owners’ hands, and I think the sales turned out relatively well.”

For horse breeding farms, like Cool Winds Farms out of Lima, the peak of breeding season in March was spent in fear about what the summer uncertainty could bring. Randy and Kim Haines have owned Cool Winds Farms since 2002. They owned the Ohio Horse of the Year in 2019, Dancing Yankee, who was bred in Ohio, and raced primarily in Ohio as a young horse. Currently they own around 30 mares, with some partnerships, around 400 customer mares, they have up to six stallions on the farm, and foal around 70 to 80 foals a year. As a farm that runs at such a large capacity, Cool Winds Farms had to make a plan that ensured the safety of their employees and clients. 

“We put in some protocols to keep us and our employees healthy — not allowing a lot of folks on the farm. If you’re dropping off a mare, we are limiting access to one truck driver or one groom,” Randy said. “We ship a lot of seamen. We would sit it outside the door, trying really do what the governor asked and wear a mask to practice social distance.” 

With the intention to limit the amount of people on the farm as a whole, he said they had to eventually turn people away if they contacted the farm about a horse breed they wanted to bring to the farm. Randy also serves as the president of the Ohio Harness Horse Breeders (OHHB) and, in that role, worked with health officials to put together protocols for sales like the Ohio Selective Sale, a sale the organization puts on each September. 

“Our sales were up 20% in Ohio this fall. Which is the only state in the country where the yearling sales were up significantly,” Randy said. 

“And I also think the racing on the Internet got so many new owners and new people interested. We got a whole bunch of groups of people buying horses. It’s not just one individual now, it’s maybe five to 10 guys getting together and saying ‘Yeah let’s buy a horse,’” Kim Haines said. 

In the past, buyers relied more on the confirmation, but now pedigree has gotten more important for harness horse buyers. And, in the case of 2020’s global pandemic, buyers had to adapt even more to be able to make purchase decisions. 

“The biggest change is we video tape every single horse and this year because of the pandemic, and we also had online bidding, we extended that out and a lot of the sales we also did confirmation shots. Which is, we stand them up, get a side view, front and back, and get a headshot,” Randy said. “So we spent quite a bit of time, especially with Ohio Selective yearlings, with confirmation shots, to add them to a video. And of course the folks that come to the sale want to inspect the yearlings personally.”

In 2019 the Ohio Selective Sale had already began looking at their options to move to an online bidding platform, and after a few months of discussion and weighing of options, in January of 2020, the organization decided to make plans for online bidding. 

Not all of the yearlings in Ohio were bought online for the year, but the online bidding brought an outlet for expansion to other states in a more accessible way. Cool Winds Farms tapped into marketing and social media within the industry in 2020 more than they ever have. Buying ad space on race live streams and upping their presence on social media allowed some growth for too.

“It’s been wonderful, let’s just say that! A lot of people watch those races, and through the second half of the year they were probably sick of hearing about Cool Winds Farms — but hey, it was out there, and it was great advertising for us,” Randy said. “Well then we roll into March and April, and oh goodness, nobody can come to these sales and here we’ve got this online bidding. Well as it turned out, everybody did. We thought we were going to be the new kids on the block and by the time we got to August and September it was really well received. A lot of folks used it and took advantage of it.” 

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