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Standardbred-Focused 'Stronger Together'

Published: October 15, 2020 1:26 pm ET

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On Thursday (Oct. 15), Woodbine Entertainment conducted its most recent 'Stronger Together' session. The remote, virtual roundtable focused on Woodbine's Standardbred product at Mohawk, and featured Jim Lawson, Ann Straatman, and Brad Grant, alongside moderator Jason Portuondo.

The panel discussed various topics, which included the Mohawk Million, Standardbred breeding and yearling sales, and Mohawk, specifically. The discussion also touched on more general topics, which included the Ontario Sires Stakes program, purses, Woodbine's board, and broadcasting.

The session kicked off with discussion about the recently-conducted Mohawk Million, which saw Julie Miller trainee Venerate storm through the stretch and prevail in the inaugural edition of the stakes, which featured a purse of $1.32-million.

Straatman -- who is the reproduction manager at Seelster Farms, the sale manager of London Selected Yearling Sale, and the chair of Standardbred Canada -- stated that the Mohawk Million goes a long way in bringing racing to the forefront of the public eye. She also stated that the race's robust purse gives yearling buyers a significant chance for a quick return on the purchase price of their yearling. Longtime racehorse owner Brad Grant, who has increasing bought into yearlings in recent years, stated that it was unfortunate that fans couldn't attend the stakes night due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He stated that, if fans were there to witness it all, it would've been an 'over the top' night.

Portuondo then asked Lawson, the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment, if there will be a follow-up edition of the Mohawk Million in 2021. Lawson did not want to go on the record with a firm answer, and stated that discussion and analysis of the stakes is currently ongoing and that no decisions have been made as of yet.

In terms of the Mohawk Million, Lawson stated that Woodbine Entertainment tries a lot of different things, and if they don't end up working out, so be it. Woodbine's CEO's stated that the company wants to be bold. He also said he believes that having the winner of the William Wellwood Memorial earn a free spot in the Mohawk Million helped the event, in terms of creating interest and buzz throughout the summer leading up to the Wellwood. Lawson stated that he believed the Mohawk Million helped the yearling industry via last year's auctions.

Lawson stated that he thinks Woodbine will be moving ahead with the Mohawk Million in 2021. The CEO also said that if the event is to be conducted in 2021, tweaks could be made.

When the discussion turned to breeding and this season's yearling sales, Straatman admitted that this year has been challenging, given the massive curveball that the industry has been thrown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When asked how she thinks the industry is going to react with online sales, etc., Straatman noted the obvious challenges, and stated that there is a healthy degree of anxiety between both yearling buyers and sellers during these unfamiliar times. Straatman noted that there are online auctions, virtual presentations and in-person sales, so buyers do have a lot of options. She noted that it's a stressful time, but that she feels that the breeding industry and the auction outlets are well prepared.

In speaking of the yearling sale experience this year, Grant said that the farms have done a great job showing everything they can on the colts and fillies, but admitted that he might be a bit of an adrenaline junkie, stating that his misses being at the auctions in person.

As the discussion shifted gears, Lawson discussed the impact that the pandemic has had on Woodbine Entertainment. The impact has not been good.

Lawson stated that wagering on Woodbine Entertainment's racing products has been good, but, overall, the pandemic has severely impacted the company's bottom line. He stated that a lot of the decisions that Woodbine has been forced to make, specifically in terms of its employees, have been very tough to deal with. He stated that with the Woodbine casino opening and then closing again, and with the company's OTBs being forced to close, it's been a troubling time in many ways. It has forced the company to reassess how it does business, said Lawson, who added that Woodbine now has to look at serving its customers in a different way.

Lawson said that Woodbine has always taken the long-term view that its decisions are made in order to steer the industry in the right direction for the future. He credited Woodbine employees with helping move more than 10,000 existing customers to HPI, and stated that he is thrilled with the company's new Dark Horse app, which is currently being tweaked.

Looking forward to 2021, Portuondo asked Lawson what next year might look like. He asked if the company will stay the course in the new year or will it be making any changes. Lawson admitted that it's a tough question to answer.

The Woodbine CEO said that no area of the company's business is immune to what has happened (what the pandemic has caused) and that Woodbine is down $100 million this year. Lawson said that large figure is going to be hard to correct. He also pointed out that Woodbine Entertainment has not received the revenue that it projected from the OLG (capital via rent) due to the casino closures. Lawson also noted that revenue from Woodbine Entertainment's food and beverage services and its valet service have obviously not been coming in. Champions lounges have been shut down. Lawson stated the obvious when he said that the significant issues have been problematic and that its been a difficult period.

Lawson also took the opportunity to bluntly say that every move the Woodbine Entertainment makes is to sustain the industry and that the company does not have shareholders. He said that, in terms of 2021, every option is on the table; "not saying there will be purse cuts, but everything is on the table."

The discussion then made a pivot and focused on broadcasting. Lawson stated that the current lull in the North America sporting landscape will be giving the industry more exposure, courtesy of the reintroduction of 'Racing Night Live' to TSN. To read Trot Insider's detailed piece of the return of the show, click here.

In speaking of the hiatus that Racing Night Live had recently taken from TSN's programming, Lawson said that taking a pause was the right thing to do, given the overcrowded sports market in September. He said that Woodbine Entertainment has a great relationship with TSN, and that the end result of the partnership is that Woodbine puts on a great show. Lawson explained that Woodbine knows that a lot of the show's viewers are Woodbine's core customers, but that is also great because they get to watch one of their favourite sports on a national network in a primetime slot. He stated that the show has moved to Fridays in order to stay away from Thursday Night Football programming. Lawson explained that it is great that the show is in the 7:00 timeslot (now 7 to 9 p.m.), and that the timeslot showed an uptick in viewership the past. He stated that Woodbine is going to continue to jump on the chance to showcase/promote HPI and Dark Horse. "Having the opportunity to put harness racing on primetime TV, I'm just thrilled that we have that opportunity," said Lawson.

Lawson also commented on the recent changes to Woodbine's board. Longtime members Clay Horner and John Fielding are now gone, while Christine Magee has been introduced as the new chair.

Lawson specifically mentioned that he wanted to acknowledge the huge contribution that Horner and Fielding made during their tenures on the board. Lawson stated that each are both extremely passionate about industry, and that Fielding has made a huge investment in the industry. The Woodbine CEO stated that the duo understand racing and made great contributions, but that now is the time to find replacements. Lawson went on to say that he wants people to understand that Woodbine Entertainment is buttoning down, and that it is run like a public company. He said that Woodbine Entertainment may be adding two to three board members in the coming weeks, but definitely before the end of the year, and that the company is looking to add people that represent both breeds.

Portuondo asked Straatman specifically about how things are at Seelster Farms, to which she admitted that currently all of Seelster's stress has been associated with the new format of the yearling sale. She explained that breeders get one payday, and that she thinks the decision to go virtual is in the best interest of everyone involved. Straatman also stated that the 2020 breeding season was relatively unaffected by the pandemic, but that we don't know what 2021 holds and that Seelster is in a 'wait and see' mode.

The discussion shifted to Mohawk, specifically, and after comments from Straatman and Grant, Lawson stated that Mohawk has surely been a success story for Woodbine Entertainment since Standardbred racing moved to the Campbellville oval.

Lawson stated that people were concerned when as chair of Woodbine Entertainment he supported moving Woodbine's Standardbred product to Mohawk, out of the Toronto market. Lawson explained that, at the time, people saw the move in the wrong light and thought it was a negative thing. He pointed out that Standardbred horsepeople have said they really like the move and that the wagering has been good. He pointed out that 75 per cent of wagering on Mohawk is conducted via HPI and online, so Woodbine knew that the move wouldn't result in a huge downturn on handle. Lawson admitted that the move was a risk at the time and wondered if handicappers would take to it. The numbers prove the decision was prudent. Lawson has said that the company is continuing to raise the bar at Mohawk, and they want the Campbellville oval to be the No. 1 Standardbred raceway in North America. "We recognize that having other strong tracks are good for the industry," said Lawson, "but at the same time we want to be recognized as the best."

(With files from Woodbine Entertainment)

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