Within in minutes, I learned something special, this harness racing facility has a very unique approach in its desire to attract fans and future fans.
There is something for everybody! Social media is very important at Western Fair Raceway, it's a great way for people like track announcer Shannon 'Sugar' Doyle and Racing Manager Greg Blanchard to reach out to new and old fans alike, keeping fans in the loop instantly.
"I make myself approachable to everybody" says Sugar Doyle, "whether it is a fan in Chicago, California or Toronto or wherever, if they are letting you know they are playing your track, you got to get back to them and say thanks and wish them luck. Let's make it interesting for them, have them win something through a contest. Let's have fun! We can communicate through twitter and it doesn't cost them a thing." Saying this, Sugar had just finished packaging a prize to be shipped to a lucky contestant in Toronto.
Speaking with track announcer Shannon 'Sugar' Doyle was great. Sugar is all passion, and that passion is fueled by harness racing. How come Shannon Doyle is called 'Sugar'? Well, back in his home province of Prince Edward Island, (he's a Summerside chap), Shannon was the coach of a novice A hockey team and all the kids on the team had nicknames. The kids wanted to call him 'Candy man' since he always had a lollipop or some type of candy in his mouth. Well, that name didn't really jive and then one of the hockey mom's coined him 'Sugar' instead and since that day he says "I've been rolling with Sugar ever since."
Sugar is extremely stoked for the upcoming Molson Pace (Friday May 30th with a 7:05pm post time), and if Foiled Again were to show up to the Molson Pace, Sugar says "this was worth the move from Edmonton just to call this race." Prior to joining the Western Fair team in the summer of 2013, Sugar was the track announcer at Northlands Park in Edmonton, Alberta for both Standardbred and Thoroughbred races. "I'll admit this is closer for me to get back to PEI in the summer. I can drive there opposed to flying across the country." Sugar notes.
In high school yearbooks, when students put down their "last will and testament" as Sugar describes it, his message was "One day I will be involved in horse racing". Truer words have never been written. When Sugar is calling a race he really feeds off the fans, and when he sees fans going wild, yelling and cheering their horses on, Sugar gets amped up even more!
In 2002 due to a blood clot in his lungs, Sugar's dad passed away abruptly. "A lot of the reason I'm doing what I am doing, I am living my dream here calling races. I left work at the tax centre in Summerside to call horse races. A big part of that is my father passed away right after retirement, he had some dreams but didn't get to fulfill them." Sugar explains.
Two years ago, Sugar had his plans set to co-host the O'Brien awards. The day before Sugar was set to fly out to attend the awards, he passed out on the roof of Northlands Park. "I thought I was a little bit nervous about the flight I was going to take the next day to Toronto to go to the O'Brien awards." Sugar notes. "I chalked it up to a bit of anxiety and I come back from the O'Brien's and I was in emergency about a month later and had a blood clot in my lungs. So I am just lucky to be here."
Sugar's dad had to of been looking out for himas a guardian angel. "To suffer one of those, I know how quick it could have been over. I was there the morning my dad dropped to the floor and how quick it was over. To have that happen and be on an airplane the next day, and to survive the flight back with a blood clot... my dad must have been looking out for me. The angels have been with me ever since."
It's been a full year since Sugar has been given a clean bill of health and he's is still living his dream, enjoying every race, every day, wire to wire.
Meeting with Greg Blanchard, the Racing Manager of Western Fair was a true delight. If you haven't met Greg, he's quite genuine and down to earth. As the night progressed, Greg was pulled aside for various reasons and with each interaction; Greg was always calm and classy. There was no 'show' to put on, the philosophy I observed was all about enjoying what you do, and if anything extra arises, there is a team behind you for support. Fans of horse racing may remember Greg from his on-air days with Woodbine Entertainment.
"We are focused on having the best product out on the track... bringing more fans to the stands" Greg says. "You can't ignore technology and advancements, we have embraced that and it is a part of our growth strategy going forward but we are not losing sight of the live race fan and we are going to make coming to the races here in London a fantastic live experience."
Greg joined the Western Fair team in the fall of 2010 as assistant racing manager and announcer. This is Greg's first season as Racing Manager and it's easy to understand what a difficult time he must have had with the transition given the outlook of the industry last fall. However Greg doesn't see it that way. Instead Greg sees opportunity for growth and expansion at every turn, asking how we can do more for the fans opposed to remain content with current success. One thing you quickly learn about Greg is he always looks at any approach from a team stand point, even if it means more work for himself.
"It was a new role for me at a time where racing in Ontario faced its biggest challenge ever." Greg admits. "Going into next season, I think it will make it easier without all the external forces. Facility upgrades and improvements will help enhance the fan experience going into next season." Greg mentions they are planning on redoing the inner tack including the infield stage followed by improvements to the grandstands.
"For the whole family, we make Family day a big event along with boxing day and several other days. We try and make it more fan friendly for the younger kids."
Greg caught the 'bug' from an early age spending time at the races with his dad. Greg says, "We can't lose sight of that, I was a kid once and that's how I first got exposed (to harness racing). For me it was hanging out with my father, running around with the other kids just oblivious to racing but enjoying ourselves, having races amongst us."
To cover all the amazing people who make up the Western Fair would take a couple of weeks, but what was so warm and welcoming was walking into the paddock and having talented drivers likewalk up and shake your hand.
Drivers, trainers and grooms came and went and everyone was either laughing or joking. If not, they were intensely focused on their horses. The bond horsemen have amongst themselves is unique, refreshing and pure.
Truth be told, the only way to understand the experience is to see it for oneself and the team at Western Fair offers that opportunity to fans through open house events on qualifying days. Fans can get up close with the drivers and horses they cheer on, get an autograph or two as well as have their picture taken with one of the horses.
Meeting Angie Carroll was a warming interaction, such a sweet person whose brother is, one of the leading drivers at Western Fair Raceway. Angie won the award of Caretaker of the year in 2013 as the Best Groom at Western Fair by an overwhelming vote. Every time I saw Angie, she was always beside her horse, the bond between the two being clearly strong and mutual. If Angie had to choose anything other than working with horses for a career, Angie would like to be an interior designer.
As Sugar and I progressed through the paddock, we met many wonderful horsemen and women. Trainer John Blancher was kind enough to give us a few minutes of his time while taking care of Sure As Shooting.
"I started out in 1973 with my first race horse when the Sired Stakes first started" John says. You wouldn't know it but John is 70 going on 45! "My family had been involved with work horses growing up on the farm and I've done it up til now."
John as he says, "laid himself off" or retired from work three months ago. John admits he has much more time to devout to his horses without having to work fulltime. When you hear what some people contend with willingly because they truly love the animals they work with is inspirational. To the horsemen and women it's not work at all. It really makes one think and contemplate what truly matters in the world, work hard play hard and enjoy the fruits of life is the motto I am left with.
There's something John told me that I will carry for the rest of my life; "The outside of the horse is good for the inside of a man." As John spoke those words, I happened to be staring into the eyes of Sure As Shooting and I couldn't look away. The soul combined with the energy and power these majestic animals possess has no relation.
Western Fair Raceway is a part of the Western Fair District which is comprised of a sporting complex which hosts four ice rinks, three of which are set to NHL size standards and the fourth set to Olympic size standards.
A great deal for anyone wanting to have a fun and thrilling night out is to go to the Western Fair Raceway on Friday nights. For an awesome price of $40 per person, you are treated to a buffet dinner at the Top of the Fair restaurant starting at 6pm followed by live harness racing which kicks off at 7:10pm.
Aside from the competitive racing, patrons can dine on delicious dishes such as chipotle pork which has just enough kick to the taste buds that will leave you wanting another bite. The jerk chicken is spiced so well, all you need is some reggae music to make you feel you were dining on the beaches of Jamaica. The fajita bar and taco pasta salad are must haves as well, and all the servers are very polite and attentive.
You can follow all the live action from any vantage point with TVs at every dining table and larger screens along the top so if you're grabbing another bite or two, you can still take hold of all the action.
Truly neat is how the Top of the Fair restaurant lays out the selection of dishes. Instead of the traditional mesh hall line up for selecting food, is the great idea of having selections spread throughout the length of the top floor so if you are coming up for seconds, you are not stuck waiting in the traditional long line seen at most buffets.
Once you're a fully satisfied of food and competitive racing, your $40 also includes a 10:30pm comedy show at Yuk Yuk's which is only a short walk away, while remaining indoors. Not to forget Western Fair will also include $15 in casino play.
Another facet to the Western Fair District, which was formed in 1867, is its agriculture aspect, hosting Artisan and Farmer markets which are second to none. The true beauty of the Western Fair District is it is a not for profit agriculture association that continuously reinvests revenue into the District and community itself, boasting a proud and proper slogan of 'Our Roots Run Deep'.
By: Roderick Balgobin www.supernovasportsclub.com Twitter: ScSupernova