As Grand River Raceway begins to welcome fans back to the Elora facility, patrons have returned to a number of improvements to the Tarmac, the new GrandWay Patio and GrandWay lounge. Going forward, the plans for expansion at Grand River will also include a larger racing surface.
Jamie Martin, Director of Operations at Grand River Raceway, confirmed to Trot Insider that the track will be expanding to a five-eighths mile oval with a 2023 target date for that new configuration.
“As long as Grand River’s been in existence people have questioned why it was a half and not a five-eighths,” Martin said in a Saturday interview. “And during my time there, it keeps coming up. So we started looking at it. We made an application for funding for the project and it was accepted…I wasn’t sure the project would be approved so I wasn’t sure we were going to actually proceed. It will be exciting, it’s going to be busy for us but that’s okay.”
Funding for the project comes from the industry’s $6 million annual capital improvement fund that’s part of the long-term funding agreement.
“There’s a $6 million annual fund, the capital improvement fund, that goes all racetracks except for Woodbine and Mohawk. We’ve used it, just like all the other tracks have. This is a bigger project now, it’s going to be over two years and that helps on the funding piece.
“We had a design, I’ll give Ted [the late Dr. Ted Clarke] some credit, although he put in the half he did do a design for five-eighths and allow for it at some point in the future. So we just dusted that off last summer, and started looking at it and said ‘you know, maybe this is the next thing we should be working on.’ I got some preliminary estimates, and we submitted it last fall and it was ultimately approved in advance of this fiscal year.”
Plans call for the expansion of the track on both turns, with the front stretch staying in place.
“We have the room, we’re not starting from square one. Doug Gamsby, who has passed now, he was on our Board, he was a civil engineer and he was involved with building the place. It was his company, they’re still around, and they still have the plans from the original design plus the proposed five-eighths. Probably by August, I should have some more definitive drawings of the proposed plan, and then we’ll start talking to horsepeople and maybe we’ll make some tweaks to it after that.
“You don’t want to finish it and have people tell you you’ve screwed it up. We’ve got a fair bit of municipal approval stuff to get through too, which will take a bit of time but we don’t expect there to be any hiccups with that…it just takes time.”
Martin estimates that the project could start in earnest this fall, possibly as early as October should all the approvals come to fruition.
“The chance of us getting it done for next May would be pretty slim. We may do some moving dirt around before the winter, but I would say the bulk of construction will happen in the spring and summer of next year so it won’t interrupt our race season next year. And we’ll probably finish it in early fall, and then have it put to bed, and when we come back in 2023 for the race season we’ll be ready.”
According to Martin, the 2022 harness racing season at Grand River Raceway won’t be negatively impacted by the construction on the horizon.
“We’ve got to sort that out. The front stretch stays the same and then everything else is different, right? So I think we would tie that the new track into the front stretch after the season ends in September so that would sort of be the last piece.
“We’d have to move the lights and tie in some of the drainage stuff but we think it’s quite doable. That’s the plan; I don’t see that changing but as we go through the process.”
Another part of the process for Martin and his team at Grand River will be to maintain that half-mile intimacy that fans appreciate and expect while expanding to a larger area.
“Horses start in the backstretch with a five-eighths, right, but that will be our challenge to keep it intimate but it will be a bigger oval so it won’t be quite the same.”
Change is never easy, but all signs point to this project being change for the better.
“I think that’s the interest from the industry for us to do it. They’re making lots of great capital investments in the tracks with this funding, but not a lot of it probably is actually generating more business,” noted Martin. “It’s mostly fixing things up, which is important. Getting new starting gates, fixing roofs, fixing paddocks. That’s all important. But, this project…there are more horses in the race on a five-eighths so it does improve betting and it improves opportunity for the horses.”
Martin still expects Grand River to still race with eight horses on the starting gate while not completely ruling out starting nine across.
“That will be part of our process but at this point we’re eight across and I think we will stay with that. I guess what I mean is that with the half-mile track it’s tough outside. It gives a couple more horses a better shot in the race.”
While acknowledging that the funding is crucial to this endeavor, Martin recognized that nothing would be possible without a great team and willing Board that could see the positive potential for this vision.
“I think it speaks to our mandate and I give the Board and the Grand River Agricultural Society credit because although Ontario Racing and OLG are paying the third party costs there’s still a fair bit of effort on our part to do this. I give them credit for letting us proceed. We’re really looking forward to it.”