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Harness Racing

The Quiet of the Backstretch
by David Helwig

Charlottetown Horse Racing Track
Charlottetown Driving Park

Pinette Raceway is hidden in a small patch of woods not far from our big frame house. You get there by turning down a clay road just past Mike's Lobster Pound on the TransCanada Highway, about 40 kilometres east of Charlottetown. There's a handmade sign for the track, the outline of a horse, driver and sulky.

The raceway has a wooden grandstand, a frame building with a snack bar, and, farther off, a longer, lower building with stalls for the horses. Everything is painted white with green trim. The oval of the track is the red ochre of Prince Edward Island earth. When you climb into the grandstand, you look across at a stand of tall spruce that runs half the length of the backstretch. The other half opens across fields to the shining surface of the Pinette River. Sometimes I have seen the quick, short beat of an osprey's wings as it circles over the water, hunting, waiting to dive. On the quiet of the backstretch between races I have seen a fox trot by on its dainty feet, out of the spruce woods and back in.

Most of those who come to the track live close by. A girl of 16 takes your dollar admission on the way in, and a few minutes later she turns up in the grandstands selling tickets for the night's raffle. There's no rush to the betting windows here; there are no betting windows. No purse for the winner either. The races are just for the fun of racing, for the pleasure of seeing the long delicate legs moving in harmony, pulling the slender wheels of the carts twice around the oval.

PEI Harness Racing
Harness Racing on PEI

When they want to groom the track after the first couple of races, a tractor pulls out from behind the horse barn with the trunk of a good-sized tree on a chain behind it, and the log is dragged over the bright earth to level it.

The snack bar has hot dogs and chips and homemade muffins, sold by the kind of women you might run into at a church tea. In fact, the worlds aren't far apart. A woman just along the row in the grandstand is talking about a minister she's just heard, some kind of a Baptist, she's certain, she could tell by the way he preached, and as the horses in the third race battle toward the wire, the announcer calls out, "Sing your favorite hymns."

A Wednesday evening, and we are sitting in the stands. It is late summer, the end of the season, a chill is in the air. One of the horsemen, a familiar face from earlier Wednesdays, jokes that he's coming up to the seats to get warm. "That one's a good little goer," he says of a two-year-old pacing down the backstretch. No one comments, and he says it again. "That one's a good little goer."

The race card is not planned too much in advance. A driver will stop his horse in front of the grandstand to shout up to the race announcer the name of a new arrival, then tell those of us watching that he has to go back to the stables to get his whip since someone's mislaid it.

Between races the driver who won the first appears among the spectators, still in the helmet which is his only racing gear. He's a small, thin man with a smiling face. When they find themselves short of entries for the third race, he takes his horse out again. He wins again. Tonight, the second race had only two horses in it, and neither driver was carrying a whip. You could hear their voices across the darkening air shouting encouragement at their horses as they came down the homestretch.

There are no lights on the Pinette track, so the races have to be over before dark comes up out of the east over the river and tall trees. Will there be races next week? Maybe, but the days are getting short. The air is sharp with the cold. After the last race, everyone is quick to get up and move to the cars.

The sun is setting over the cove at Pinette, and the beach where we dug clams in the summer is empty. At this time of year the lobster boats are brought ashore and set on blocks to pass the winter, then to be painted and cleaned up when the weather warms up in the spring. It is part of the poetry of fall here, the boats appearing in the yards of the houses down every country road.

Soon, they'll be taking down the sign announcing the races, but in a few months, when the ice is out, among the other signs of spring on the Island, the horses will be back, their hooves banging along over the red earth.