Racetrack rituals haven't changed much in 101 years, which is how long Blue Bonnets racetrack (now known as Hippodrome de Montréal) has been part of the fabric of this city.
Grooms and trainers are up at dawn to exercise the racehorses before the midday heat.
Fussed over by the handlers they know and trust, the animals are bathed, brushed, rubbed, shoed and fed, returning to freshened stalls to await their next call to the post.
These days, however, there is no call.
Live racing at Hippodrome de Montréal was abruptly cancelled at the Décarie Blvd. oval two weeks ago after racetrack operator Attractions Hippiques filed for creditor protection.
With no word on when it will resume, if ever, there's been a quiet exodus of horses from the barns adjacent to the racetrack.
Rick Bodi, who runs a horse-transportation business, has averaged one shipment of six to 10 horses per day since racing stopped. The destination has been racetracks in Ontario and New Hampshire.
The trucks are coming back empty.
"People are leaving Dodge real quick. Nothing's coming back," Bodi said.
For trainers like Marcel Barrieau, 61, the empty stalls are a grim reminder of the cash squeeze that inevitably will force them to downsize their operations, letting go employees that in some cases have been with them for decades.
His stable shrank from 21 horses to 14 in two weeks. "I'll probably end up with seven or eight, the way things are going," said Barrieau. "I can't remember the last time I had so few." Former nurse Christine Davignon, 39, just getting established as a trainer, watched her best horse depart for Toronto.
"I came here for a fresh start two years ago, and finally got things going. Now, it could all unravel. I'd hate to go back to nursing because I really don't like it." Trainer Normand Bardier Jr., 45, says the province already has lost the baseball Expos and hockey Nordiques, and now risks losing yet another professional-sport institution, causing a potential migration of racing families to Ontario and the U.S., and catastrophic losses for Quebec racehorse breeders.
"The last few years," he said, "we've lived on promises and dreams. Now, the dreams are dying."
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