HANOVER, ONT. -- They were one of the first sports to return in the wake of COVID-19, now harness racing is one of the first sports to allow fans back in the stands.

“It was great to see people back. It was almost eerie to have no people here,” says Ian Fleming, who runs the Clinton Raceway.

One hundred fans were allowed to return to the stands at each horse track across Ontario this weekend, the first time spectators have been allowed back at the track this summer.

“Obviously we want to keep everyone safe. If 100 is where we have to start, then that’s where we have to start,” says Fleming.

After thinking there wouldn’t be racing at all this summer, harness racing actually started largely on time this year.

The first six weeks had empty grandstands, but more online eyeballs and wagering than ever before.

“People watching from home have been extremely large crowds, partially I think because there isn’t much else to watch,” says Fleming.

That will soon change with the impending restart of the NHL and NBA playoffs. Still, harness racing is hoping new access to fans will bring the sport to new heights.

“To have TSN start putting our races on TV, it will get a lot of interest going out there,” says Lakeshore Mayor Tom Bain, whose community is home to the Leamington Raceway.

Renewed access to “fans in the stands” also bodes well for harness racing, as one of the only “in-person” shows in town.

“Now 100 people can come here and we can spread out safely, so we think it will be a safe activity for the foreseeable future,” says Fleming.