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Reaction To Woodbine's COVID Closure

Published: November 24, 2020 1:09 pm ET

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Steve Buffery penned the following article that was posted online on Monday (Nov. 23) by the Toronto Sun.

Woodbine has kept COVID-19 at bay, and is being punished for it

Woodbine Racetrack workers are being thrown to the wolves by the Ontario government and, rightfully, they’re howling mad.

What is happening at the Rexdale track is an absolute travesty. And it’s not just the workers being thrown under the bus. There is a serious animal welfare issue that could become very ugly.

When the Doug Ford government put Toronto and Peel Region in the grey “lockdown” zone on Monday, it ended thoroughbred horse racing at Woodbine for the year.

And here’s the ridiculous part: Under the province’s lockdown regulations, horse racing is not allowed. But training is. Which makes absolutely no sense.

Essentially the same people are needed to train at Woodbine as are needed to race. The difference is, without racing, there’s no betting. No betting, no money, no training. When there’s no purse money, track workers — most of whom earn barely liveable wages — lose their jobs and face a long, desperate winter.

As I said in my Monday column. These aren’t urban professionals ordering Parmesan Risotto with Roasted Shrimp from Skip The Dishes while working out of their home offices. These are people who live mostly hand-to-mouth, many of whom actually live at the track. And they’re being thrown out of a job despite the fact that Woodbine has done an incredible job keeping the COVID-19 virus at bay since training began in March and racing in June. They’ve done the right thing during the pandemic and they’re being punished for it.

“We deserve a chance (to keep racing) because we’re very credible,” Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson told the Toronto Sun on Monday. “Who else could have 2,000 people going to the backstretch and not have a single transmission of COVID for eight months? It’s a remarkable safety record. And, now, this week, we’re going to see the end — prematurely — of 2,500 jobs.

“This wasn’t well thought out. But I think if we can speak to the right people, I’m optimistic that they’ll understand that we got caught in a wide swath here that we shouldn’t have.”

What’s frustrating for Lawson — the former chairman of the CFL who is generally well-connected in business, sports and political circles in the province — is that he’s having an extremely difficult time making his case to the province. Nobody at the Health Minister’s office seems to want to pick up the phone. Of course they’re busy, but we’re talking about people — people of very modest means — who are being thrown out of work for no good reason.

“We’re going to be losing over $50 million wagering revenue (by being forced to close three weeks early),” said Lawson. “And the horse people will be down $5.2 million in purses, which they desperately need to get them through the winter. I don’t think (the province) appreciates the magnitude of that loss of jobs.”

Lawson says all the province has to do is take a good look at Woodbine’s record during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of people working at the track every day for eight months and no positives. Last week one jockey tested positive, and through contact tracing it was discovered that he contracted the virus off the Woodbine property.

“We wrote the textbook (on COVID-19 prevention). We published a 35-page handbook in the spring on how to do this,” said Lawson. “We are the Gold Standard for North America on how to do this. And we’re really the poster child on how you can do sports and conduct this kind of activity (safely).”

One theory as to why Woodbine has not been given an exemption in terms of being allowed to continue to operate during the ‘grey zone’ is that the Doug Ford government doesn’t want to look like they’re playing favourites.

Woodbine is located in the Premier’s home riding of Etobicoke North and the province is likely terrified that the public and media who don’t care for him to start with would have a field day if he gives horses the green light to run in his own backyard, even if allowing Woodbine to race is the right thing to do.

Lawson said all the province has to do is take a real look at the situation.

“They didn’t do enough due diligence and homework to understand what we’re doing,” he said. “The decision was made without enough understanding of the Woodbine situation and the thousands of people that worked there in a COVID-free environment.”

Lawson has one other major fear on top of the thousands of people losing their jobs at Woodbine — a fear that some small-time owners and trainers won’t be able to look after their horses going forward.

The misconception in that horse racing is the domain of royals and rich businessmen. There are some of those in the sport, but the majority of owners and trainers are people of modest means. With the late start to racing this year because of the pandemic, and the revenue lost because of that, this early shut-down may mean that some owners and trainers won’t have the money to look after their horses in the off-season.

As Lawson pointed out, closing Woodbine three weeks early means a loss of $5.2 million in purses.

“You know how many inexpensive horses we have on the grounds and we’re very worried they won’t be looked after,” he said. “There’s lot of cases of people selling them for inexpensive money just to get rid of them. And you know what that leads to.”

All Lawson wants is a chance to make his case. And if someone does pick up the phone at Queen’s Park, he’s optimistic that racing will be allowed to continue into mid-December as originally scheduled.

“The case is so strong,” he said.

And if no one at the provincial government hears his plea and Woodbine is forced to close this week?

“That would be tantamount to the provincial government shutting down the Ford plant in Oakville, with the loss of 3,000 jobs, and not even talking to Ford in advance,” said Lawson.

(Steve Buffery / Toronto Sun)

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