Fraser Downs celebrates 40 years of harness racing

Track launches new season Thursday (Oct. 6) with special guests and giveaways

Roy Johnson brushes a horse at Fraser Downs Racetrack at Elements Casino

CLOVERDALE — Roy Johnson’s next birthday will be his 80th. He doesn’t look it, and he doesn’t sound it. Maybe that’s what a life surrounded by horses and harness racing does for you.

On Monday (Oct. 3), as rain pounded on the roof above, Johnson worked busily on a horse in one of the six large red barns that have for so long identified the facility now known as Fraser Downs Racetrack at Elements Casino. Johnson was here when it was simply “Fraser Downs,” and before that when it was called Cloverdale Raceway.

Indeed, Johnson has been part of the track’s fabric since the very first day, on Jan. 1, 1976.

“It was just a field before that I think,” he recalled, “but yes, I was here from the beginning, when racing first started.”

It all began very early for one of the track’s most iconic figures.

“I’ve been doing this since I was five years old,” he said. “My parents had horses…they had standardbred and thoroughbreds, in Saskatchewan. We lived on a farm there. I’ve been involved with them ever since.

“I’ve raced in Regina, Saskatoon, Sandown Park (on Vancouver Island), Sportsman’s Park (in Illinois), Hollywood Park (in California). In the States, I worked for a big stable, and we toured the country.

“I’m like Hank Snow – I’ve been everywhere,” he said, laughing.

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Johnson, who’s called Surrey home since 1965, remembers well the many years he spent as a trainer and a driver, but is quite content now to leave the driving to others.

“I was in an accident. A racing accident, here at this track, I would say five or six years ago. And my daughter said, ‘That’s it. We’re not going through this again.’

“I can go out and train my own horses now, but I don’t care to go out and race anymore. I have two horses here, but I get someone else to drive them. For me, rather than sitting at home watching television, I’m moving around every day. You can’t beat it.”

On Thursday (Oct. 6), Johnson and his compatriots will begin a new season of harness racing at Fraser Downs. But not just any old season.

This is the 40th anniversary of the storied Cloverdale track.

And Johnson isn’t the only one who’s psyched.

Carla Robin, the executive director of Harness Racing BC, is looking forward to the party. On opening night, she promises giveaways to the first 100 people through the gate, a memorial celebration for longtime star driver Bill Davis and an appearance by Ray Gemmill, the first driver to ever win a race at the facility.

On Monday, Robin took me on a behind-the scenes tour. She showed me her office, directly across the hall from that of the BC Gaming Policy Enforcement Branch. She explained that Harness Racing BC provides the horses for harness racing throughout the province, which these days is limited to just a single track: Fraser Downs. The GPEB, literally within arm’s reach, makes sure everything is kosher.

She took me to the barns, a beehive of activity where upwards of 200 people were scooting this way and that, training the horses and readying them for the season at hand. She told me the Fraser Down barns can house up to 500 horses, and explained that once the season gets underway, the entire area is “closed off and restricted.”

And that’s what happens in a wagering atmosphere. According to Robin, “on some nights we have more than $300,000 being bet on the horses.”

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PICTURED: Mark Abbott gives vitamins to a horse. Photo by Gord Goble

Here, everyone I see is down-home friendly. Over there is Mark Abbott, son of another Fraser Downs veteran, trainer Gord Abbott. At 27 years of age, Mark is one of the younger folks I met during my visit.

But he’s no rookie.

“I’ve been shoeing for 10 years,” he said as he worked on a “new horse we just got from Alberta.”

The horse will compete in a “stakes race” Thursday, where the winner trots away with $10,000. And Mark’s removing its shoes, inspecting them for wear, making reparations to both shoe and hoof, and re-shoeing.

Mark’s also a driver, and his enthusiasm for the sport is obvious. The guy’s a natural.

No wonder. His dad’s been a Fraser Downs fixture for three and a half decades, and is also a member of the board of directors.

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“I was raised in the business in Ontario,” the elder Abbott said. “I came out here in 1981. I’ve been training the entire time.”

They just returned from Alberta, where they “race all summer,” and that they’re “racing eight horses (at Fraser Downs) now.”

“The horses jog every day. Some days we work them out harder than others. We keep them fit and keep them sound and we look after whatever ailments they have. They’re athletes.”

Standing trackside, I noticed some horses travelled clockwise, while others moved counter-clockwise, like they do during a race. Some are confined to the smaller inner circuit, and one trainer handled two horses simultaneously. At least the horses and the drivers know what they’re doing, even if I don’t.

Robin suggests arriving a bit early for Thursday’s season kickoff. Racing begins at 6 p.m., but arriving just after 5 should get you a good seat and first crack at the buffet. For more info, call 604-576-9141 or visit Elementscasino.com/racing.

gordgoble@gmail.com

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