By Paul Morden, from www.theobserver.ca The Observer
he Ontario Racing Commission has announced 21 race dates in 2015 for Hiawatha Horse Park in Sarnia.
The announcement of racing dates across the province was made by the commission following a Dec. 3 meeting with horse racing and track representatives, including Hiawatha.
The commission’s proposal calls for live racing at the Sarnia track on Saturday nights, with a 6:30 p.m. post time, from May 9 to Sept. 26.
The 21 dates in Sarnia matches the number of dates awarded Hiawatha this year, said track owner Jim Henderson.
But live racing will only be on Saturdays in 2015, and not Thursday and Saturday dates as the track offered this past summer.
Henderson said that approach may end up attracting more people on Saturdays, making it even better for customers.
“We were hoping to get a few more race dates,” he added.
The timing of the announcement for 2015 is welcome.
Earlier this year, Hiawatha didn’t hear until approximately 10 days before the first race date in June what dates it had been awarded by the commission.
“This time, we got some notice to plan the year,” Henderson said.
Ontario’s horse racing industry was thrown into turmoil when the Ontario government decided in 2012 to end a program that shared revenue from Ontario Lottery and Gaming slot machines at tracks, including Hiawatha.
The Sarnia track lost its slot machines, along with the revenue stream they provided, but Henderson kept the track going while the racing industry scrambled to adjust to the change.
Even with those challenges, the most recent race season at Hiawatha “wasn’t that bad,” he said.
“We had a lot of customers, a lot of demand, a lot of horses.”
Henderson said many of the customers and horse owners like the facility at Hiawatha with its paddock and enclosed viewing area.
Along with live race dates, Hiawatha has been offering simulcast racing Thursday, Friday and Saturday all year.
“It will help the racing, and it will help customer-wise,” Henderson said.
“It has been picking up.”
In particular, Henderson said, the track has begun attracting more customers from the U.S.
Hiawatha is a shorter trip for racing fans in nearby parts of Michigan, than tracks elsewhere in the state, he said.
Along with horse racing, the facility on London Road is home to a driving range and go-kart facilities.
Henderson said the former casino floor has also been turned into a banquet facility that is attracting weddings and special events.
“We really dressed it up,” he said.
Henderson said he has also been working to rent out 15,000 square feet of office space available at the facility.
“It’s getting better,” he said.
As well as the dates for Hiawatha, the racing commission has proposed 11 race dates for Dresden Raceway, between May and August in 2015.
A total of 14 race dates were announced for the track in Leamington.