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Lawson Discusses Woodbine Season

Published: December 1, 2021 11:25 am ET

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Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson shared an update on the operations of Ontario's leading horse racing track operator at one of its 'Stronger Together' stakeholder events on Wednesday, Dec. 1.

While the latest 'Stronger Together' session focused on Thoroughbred racing topics at Woodbine Racetrack as the 2021 meet concludes this weekend, Lawson spoke candidly about the successes and concerns for the entire Ontario horse racing industry when asked by host Jeff Bratt how Woodbine has performed so far this season.

"With not being able to start on time, we dug ourselves in a big hole again this year,” said Lawson, referring to the lost race days early in the year due to the provincial COVID-19 shutdowns. “When you don't race both breeds over that period -- we were supposed to start here the third week of April and didn't get going until June again and same thing on the Standardbred side, we had to stop -- you can't make that up. So that has hurt us substantially.

"If you park that, we've done extremely well," he continued. "We had a record day on the Ricoh Woodbine Mile day. We had our second highest handle ever at the Queen's Plate. We are up 53 per cent on our HPI wagering -- that's the good news.

"The more difficult news is we're down about 14 per cent on our Home Market Area wagering, which is wagering in Ontario on our product, and that is a real concern that we need to address,” said Lawson, noting that Woodbine’s profit margins are highest on its HMA product. “But generally, we're up overall; we're up four to six per cent so it's been a profitable year from a wagering standpoint. We're going to exceed $500 million in total handle for four consecutive years, so our brand is strong, but a lot of our growth is into the United States, and we really have to, I think, as an industry, start to think what is really going on here: it's shrinking, our product in Ontario.

“As our brand grows in the United States, we've got to figure out how this industry is going to sustain itself. Interestingly, I think the Auditor General came out with a report on the industry in the last couple of days and one of the things is this industry needs a sustainability plan."

Lawson also provided an update on the property development underway at the Rexdale, Ont. site surrounding Woodbine Racetrack.

“What you’re seeing primarily is the development of the casino property in terms of the cranes,” said Lawson. “It’s exciting. I think that the entertainment venue is going to be great for this property. It’s going to be a 5,000-seat primarily music auditorium, a large gaming floor expansion, you can see the trackside hotel is well underway. So that will bring people to this property and it’s going to be up to Woodbine to make sure that, as people come onto the property, we can attract them and interest them in our product.”

In 2019, Woodbine announced a GO Station on the southeast corner that will serve as a mass transit hub bringing a constant flow of visitors to the property.

“We agreed to pay for that train station. The costs have gone well above what was anticipated in 2019 so we're really struggling as an organization with the cost of that and the costs-benefit analysis," related Lawson. "In the end though, it will be worth it, but it will be worth it if we can get zoning around the train station."

Lawson said the property, which is primarily industrial lands, is currently zoned for employment lands but Woodbine hopes to rezone that property to align with the development plans.

"Industrial lands are in demand, but the bigger problem is, we as a racetrack, want people to live here and come see racing and make this a community and have a good feel for the entire community and complement each other. So we're hoping and expecting that the lands around the train station on the southeast corner will be rezoned. We're working on that right now. We're working on trying to find ways to pay for the train station, but we think we'll get there, and the way we're going to get there is through the rezoning of the transit-oriented community around the train station."

In addition to the real estate opportunities that could help Woodbine generate alternative sources of revenue to help sustain the horse racing industry for generations to come, Lawson spoke about the importance of Woodbine’s participation in the sports betting landscape. He explained the Woodbine team and consultants are currently working to explore potential partnerships.

The full hour-long 'Stronger Together' session is available below.

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