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Lawson On Successful Breeders Crown Weekend

Published: November 9, 2019 9:31 am ET

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Trot Insider recently discussed a number of racing topics with Jim Lawson, the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment, including the recent success of 2019 Breeders Crown series at Woodbine Mohawk Park.

The two-day event, which took place on Friday (Oct. 25) and Saturday (Oct. 26), generated a Canadian record total handle of $6.6 million wagered on the Breeders Crown.

In addition to the Canadian record handle, strong attendance, full dining rooms and a sold out COSA Premium Lounge, the event also gave back to the community in a significant way through the Breeders Crown Charity Challenge, raising $282,997 for five local charities.

The second part of Lawson's interview appears in a Q & A format below. Trot Insider will present the subsequent interview topics in the upcoming days.

Let's discuss the success of the 2019 Breeders Crown. The weather didn't necessarily cooperate on the Saturday but it looks like everything went extremely well over those two days.

"It certainly did. I had a conversation with John Campbell, he called to say thank you and congratulate us on a great Breeders Crown and he said it was tremendous and I said what we benefit from is a group of very passionate, dedicated employees who just want to get better and do the best at what they do in terms of hosting. And I said 'we're just going to continue to get better' and he said 'I can't think of any ways you could get better!' and I thought, well we could have improved on the weather on Saturday night [laughs].

"But all in all, the reports from the horsepeople, trainers and drivers and owners, they were all really thrilled with just how efficiently the two days were pulled off, and the customers...I can't say that I spoke to a lot of them, what I can say is I sat there for two nights and there surely was a positive buzz in the dining room the entire time. I think people were having a good time and enjoying it. The food was obviously was a feel-good time and you could sense it from sitting there. Everyone was loving it, and you know the difference...there was a real buzz in the seating areas and people were having fun. Kudos to the food that our chefs and hospitality crew prepares because it's become a signature of ours relative to the racetrack world, and part of our branding is our good food. It's always good but we got a chance to showcase it this weekend."

SC: And isn't that what you spoke to at the Breeders Crown press draw or at the Stronger Together panel session, giving the area in Milton something else to come out for aside from the races. If you can't come back for Breeders Crown night, which you obviously can't because it only happens once a year, you need to be able to give patrons something else to go back to the races for, and if you can hit the ball out of the park with your food and beverage that definitely helps your case.

"Absolutely, and we sell that. It's constant effort whether it's the Pepsi North America Cup -- this is a unique event with the Breeders Crown -- but for any of our big nights or our fireworks night, which we get lots of people at, I think our real opportunity is to show them a good experience and that experience definitely includes our cuisine that if they come out and say 'wow, this is pretty nice' and I use the line all the time when I talk to people, this is as good as going to any good restaurant in the might as well come out and enjoy a little racing and atmosphere and watch the races and have really good food at the same time. From a price standpoint we're more than competitive with good restaurants. So that's a real strategy of ours, you've hit the nail on the head, is to show them that good experience. And we can get people out for big nights including fireworks nights and others, but if they have that great food they'll think to themselves 'can we do this any night? and we say 'yeah, in the summer you can do this five nights a week."

SC: Looking at the 401 corridor in Milton between essentially Hwy. 25 and James Snow Parkway, there are a few options but to that point it does lend itself to what you're saying in that you're providing a really good option that really isn't in that area.

"Exactly, and really well done. What I like to do personally -- people in management know this -- is go to the trackside bar and I love it there. It's really good, a lot of it's pub-type food but it's really good food, great burgers and great wings and tacos, it's excellent. And with that trackside bar you're literally trackside so it's a fun place to sit. People love horses, right? To be upfront and close to the horses, it's really a nice atmosphere to go and have a nice meal. We focus on that."

SC: On the wagering side there was a comparison between the 2015 numbers at Woodbine over the two days versus the two days at Mohawk this year. Your two days in 2015 were around $5.5 million, and you did $6.6 million in 2019. What can you attribute that increase to, and what can you say about the rise in wagering? John was saying how do you make it the event you do host a Breeders Crown again you want to have a better handle than you had in 2019, so what helped the handle boost in the four years since you've had the Breeders Crown at Woodbine?

"First of all, it's really hard to analyze it specifically but I can give you the thoughts. We made a decision early on, with the nod of approval from the Hambletonian Society, to say 'listen, we want to do this over two nights.' And our simple reasoning was we can create a buzz and attraction around this event better if it's over the course of two nights than one. And maybe more importantly, if we're going to set up a lot of advertising and the large trackside tent that was set up with COSA, if we're going to go to the effort of putting all that infrastructure we might as well do it to support a couple of nights of racing rather than just one night of racing. Spending all the money, whether it was our money or COSA's money or the Hambo Society's money, it made sense if you're going to invest that to take advantage of it over two days of racing. That was the original premise, and they went along with it. So that's why we did it.

"I think that in terms of the wagering you can look at the results different ways. The $6.6 million over the two cards is obviously a very good number. We're definitely happy with it. The Breeders Crown amount was $4.3 million over just the Crown races; I think that's important, and that is -- and I don't want to start into a comparison with other racetracks -- substantially higher than it has been in some cases. I attribute that to the fact that the Woodbine product -- and we made a decision a year ago which people didn't really understand -- we had the feeling from our research that people didn't really understand Woodbine and didn't really understand Mohawk. I mean, pure harness racing people who had been around knew Mohawk and bet Mohawk but as we spread into other parts of the world in a big way -- Australia in particular -- and just broaden our reach in the United States, I think it was confusing for people. So our branding and our online branding -- and that's the key, our online and simulcast -- became Woodbine Mohawk Park, because what we spent a lot of time doing both on the Thoroughbred and Standardbred side is talking about the quality of our racing, the integrity of our racing, and taken all sorts of steps to cement the view that we really care about safety and that we really care about integrity. And I think people believe that.

"It's not to say we don't have issues but I think people really believe in our brand, and as we've marketed our brand we've been successful in marketing our product into foreign jurisdictions. And that Woodbine brand carries some clout, and it's a lot more popular. We're up, I think, 14 percent or 15 percent this year on Mohawk wagering alone into foreign jurisdictions, and we're up 25 or 30 percent in foreign jurisdictions on the Thoroughbred side. That speaks to the fact that the Woodbine brand has some recognition and I think that's the main reason....and the branding on the Standardbred side is Woodbine Mohawk Park but online it's WoodbineSB and WoodbineTB and I think that was a move that took away ...if you're going to brand a name in the market, it's much easier to brand one name than two names. That's why we moved to Woodbine and I attribute a lot of this growth to the fact that we work very hard to sell that branding, and it's really resonated in foreign jurisdictions including the U.S. And I think international attention, having a horse like Bold Eagle come and he came and did so well...the world in every sense has become smaller with technology and the digital world and I think that's indicative of what I was saying about the foreign wagering, it's much easier to market into Sweden and France and Australia and other places today than it was even four years ago, mostly because people are more comfortable with [technology] and using it more especially the demographic that loves horse racing."

SC: Do you have a sense of what worked and what didn't from what you offered on the Friday and Saturday night?

"One thing that worked interestingly enough and I said it at the draw, real kudos to Al Libfeld and Marvin Katz working with us and being the driving force behind the charity challenge. I know it doesn't sound Breeders Crown per se but I can tell you that, what I said at the outset, that there was a feel-good feeling about the whole event...I think when we introduced that charitable community aspect to it, it really helped create just a great buzz and feeling about the whole event so that was one thing that really worked. It really created a new dimension around the event.

"I think the second thing...the two nights was a success. I think it turned it more into a festival. It made it a whole lot more fun to do it over a couple of nights and treat it as a weekend rather than 'one and out'. I think that made it a success.

"I think even the international aspect and, as I said, it wasn't good for our local people but it was really a positive to have Bold Eagle come and do so well. It created a little unique aspect. You mentioned Dexter [Dunn] and Andrew [McCarthy] just created an aura of big league and international and fun, I think those things all contributed. And I think, in order to give some credit to Woodbine, I think we did a great job. Marketing, simulcasting, having it on TSN. I think what really, really helped was that we have such a great broadcasting and simulcasting and marketing team and got the word out there that this was going to be the biggest and best ever, and I think that generated some excitement too. I don't like to take much credit on behalf of Woodbine but I think Woodbine does a great job, and I think that worked too."

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