Lawson: Optimism, Potential Plans

Published: May 11, 2020 03:43 pm EDT

In Tuesday's (May 12) 'Stronger Together' video stream, Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson expressed optimism that racing in Ontario can resume as early as next month, and outlined some of the plans in place to prepare for horses returning to the starting gates at both Woodbine Racetrack and Woodbine Mohawk Park.

"We're very much hoping that we're starting in June," Lawson told presenter Jason Portuondo before indicating that Woodbine management has prepared plans to reopen Standardbred racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park on either Friday, June 5 or Friday, June 12, with Thoroughbred racing to resume on the following day.

"We're setting ourselves up to do both," Lawson continued. "We're going to be ready to go if we get the green light."

Lawson indicated that while Thoroughbreds will ease back to their full complement of weekly racing programs, there should be ample stock for pacers and trotters to dive back into five weekly cards.

"It's always been the belief that there's a horse population out there that will let us start with four or five days the opening week," Lawson said. "We believe there are that many fit horses on the Standardbred side. We would plan to start racing on a Friday night, and then the question would be whether we go into four or five days a week. We feel there might be enough horses to go five days a week right off the bat."

The fact that Standardbred racing took place largely without a hitch until the plug was pulled on March 19 will likely lend to an easier restart, especially with Standardbred trainers across the province keeping their stock in prime condition at their respective facilities. To aid trainers in getting a "fast mile" for their horses prior to their return to action, Lawson has indicated that Woodbine Mohawk Park will be open for training in advance of the reopening.

"Our plan is to open up Mohawk for training on Wednesday, May 27," Lawson said. To adhere to physical distancing protocols, sessions will be limited to 50 horses each, with signups to take place online in advance of each session. "Thereafter, we'll go Wednesdays and Sundays for training at Mohawk."

A lot of ambiguity remains concerning qualifying rules in the current climate, but Woodbine Mohawk Park will afford horsepeople ample opportunity to qualify their horses leading up to a June reopening.

"We don't have a final recommendation (from the AGCO) about qualifiers, but we are planning on hosting qualifiers — if we start on June 5 — on June 1, 2, 4 and 5," Lawson explained. "They would be split by age and by gait, and regardless of when we start, I don't think we're planning on qualifiers for two-year-olds until June 12. If our dates slip, then we'd have qualifiers the following week."

May 27 is also the target date for Mohawk's first condition sheet to be published, but Lawson admits too the difficulty in coordinating a full complement of moving parts in a situation as fluid as the present reality.

"We have our race offices back," Lawson said. "Of course, in a perfect world, we'd like to put out condition sheets with definite dates. If we start on June 5, we would have a sheet out for Mohawk on May 27. There would be a draw on Tuesday, June 2. It's a difficult one for us. We would prefer to come out with these sheets when we know racing would come back. We'll give ample time to get those condition sheets out."

"We are planning on effectively leaving the stakes schedule as it is," Lawson assured. "It begs the question on the North America Cup, but right now we're contemplating on that being in late August."

Regardless of the ultimate scope of the stakes schedule and placement of the North America Cup, Lawson cautioned that while United States-based horses can rather easily weather current cross-border quarantine protocols if entrusted to the care of a Canadian trainer, the norm of American drivers shuttling in for top races will be disrupted unless protocols are eased in the coming months.

Whenever the wings of the starting gate do swing back, one thing is certain: things will look completely different than most are accustomed — between physical distancing protocols being established on both the Woodbine and Mohawk backstretches, as well as the lack of spectators on site for at least the first couple months of racing.

"There's no plans for spectators," said Lawson regarding the blueprint for a June resumption. "Let's hope that with physical distancing guidelines that there's potential to bring back spectators on a limited basis over the course of the summer. Our plan right now is, at least until September, we're not counting on spectators."

To maximize visibility of the Woodbine and Mohawk products in the absence of spectators in grandstands, Lawson mentioned a marketing push for their HPI advance wagering platform and outlined talks between Woodbine and TSN to air horse racing live in prime time.

"I think it would be great for our sport to be prime time on a major network," said Lawson, who indicated that Standardbred handle on Saturday nights could reasonably eclipse $5 million as the "only game in town" until harness racing in the United States resumes.

Further to the limiting of both properties to essential personnel only, Lawson pointed out that the full complement of protocols put in place will gain the favour of government and health officials in leading to racing's return — despite Ontario's declaration of emergency being extended into the early part of next month.

"I think it's going to be more of a phased approach, and that phase-in could take a matter of months, we just don't know," Lawson said. "From an overall planning standpoint for horse racing, we're going ahead and planning on those June dates, and we don't think the declaration of emergency is specific, and we're working with government to help them understand that we can safely proceed with physical distancing and under the protocols of health authorities. Ontario Racing is doing a great job with protocols and procedures from each racetrack. Hats off to their leadership."

Given the fragile nature of racing's resumption, Lawson implored all racing participants to act responsibly and mindfully of the greater good of the industry.

"I would just ask people to be respectful," he said. "You're only as strong as your weakest link. Let's not go backwards and undo everything we've done. Our management has done a great job, and our horsepeople have done a great job. Let's keep our guard up; let's not give anyone any excuses to have [our target date] be delayed.

"We're prepared to do the homework, take the right steps, work with medical consultants, and do the right thing."



The 2nd legs of The Graduate are scheduled for 6/6 at Mohawk. I presume that they'll be postponed? The 3rd legs are on tap for 6/14 at Tioga, but the 4th legs aren't scheduled until 7/3, so the Mohawk legs could logically be rescheduled for either 6/20 or 6/27. Either way, the horses would still get a week off.
Also, if The North America Cup is being postponed until August (eliminations on 8/15, finals on 8/22, perhaps?) will the 5 stakes races on the NAC undercard previously scheduled for 6/20 also be postponed until then?
At the beginning of each year, I make a list of all the races that I want to watch, and when and where they're being held. With all the Covid postponements and cancellations, this year's list is a mess!

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