has seen countless horse races over the years, from maiden claiming events to million dollar stakes. One particular race set for this Sunday at Rideau Carleton might very well be one of the most special.
When the horses line up behind the gate at 7:30 p.m. for race four on August 13, it will mark the first-ever Racing Under Saddle (RUS) Ontario
wagering race at the Ottawa oval. A hybrid of Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing, RUS puts a saddle and a rider on top of a Standardbred horse.
For Walker, RUS Ontario president, to see the Rideau Carleton race come to fruition is deeply rewarding.
“It’s always a great feeling when a new racetrack invites us to race at their racetrack and we hope we can put on a great one,” she said. “It’s a big accomplishment to be expanding RUS to Ottawa, and the riders are excited to race on a new and unfamiliar oval. Everyone involved in RUS knows this is a big accomplishment.”
Continuing to grow in scope and popularity – there are eight races scheduled in 2017 – RUS Ontario saw its first (also the first in Canada) wagering race take place at Clinton Raceway (Ontario) in 2014.
Walker is hopeful this Sunday’s race, part of a 15-race card, will further boost the profile of RUS Ontario while creating new fans along the way.
“There will be a lot of people that have never seen anything like RUS,” she said. “Since RUS began five years ago with small exhibition races, our riders have really improved, made racing very exciting for the fans and bettors, and helped educate new riders.
“I’m just so proud of RUS Ontario's riders. It’s not easy to ride these horses. We have a very elite group of eight riders in Ontario because of how difficult it can be to educate yourself with the standardbreds, be fit, and be dedicated to do this as your second occupation while it is still growing in North America. We also can't ignore that in this particular race all of the riders are female. It’s very unfamiliar in the standardbred racing world.”
Ann Mari Photo
What is familiar, however, is the typical reaction of people who experience an RUS event for the first time.
It’s not uncommon to see Walker fielding her fair share of questions – before and after a race – whenever RUS Ontario rides into town.
“The first thing I always hear from fans when they see the RUS horses on the track is, ‘Wow, they race thoroughbreds here?’ said Walker with a laugh. “This is why spectators love it. They have never seen anything like it. People are filled with questions after the races. Some of the most common questions are, ‘Is that a bumpy ride when the horse has to trot?’ and, ‘How can these horses race both in the saddle and in the sulky?’ For every RUS race we have had, people in the barns, in their cars and in the grandstand stop what they are doing and walk out to the fence to take a look.”
You can expect Walker to have that same wide-eyed wonder this weekend in Ottawa, a night that also includes Ontario Sires Stakes
“I know that every time RUS sets foot on the racetrack it is a big accomplishment,” she said. “It’s so new and we have overcome so many obstacles that being able to make races happen and keep races going is the next step to RUS becoming a part of regular racing, entertainment for fans and bringing new people into the sport of horse racing.
“Ottawa is particularly special because we are moving into new territory for RUS,” she continued. “There will be tons of new people watching and all it takes is one fan, one rider, one horse owner or one trainer to see it and fall in love, and we as an organization grow in some way.”
Walker will no doubt remind herself of that in the minutes leading up to the race that has attracted an evenly matched field of six starters, including 2-1 morning favourite Lets Leavem.
Where does she think this race will rank on her most memorable list?
“Just like all races big or small, sulky or saddle, you always get those nervous butterflies,” Walker offered. “You can't wait for the race to come but at the same time you hope all goes well and that the race is safe and exciting. The big anticipation has been getting the horses, riders and trainers prepared and ready to be able to make the big trip to Ottawa. Now that the horses are entered and the race is set, I’ll be anticipating the reactions from everyone after the race. This will be so new to everyone in Ottawa and I hope they love it.”
It’s a good bet they will.
By: Chris Lomon
Action photo by Lori Martin.