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Lawson, O'Donnell On Reopening

Published: May 6, 2020 5:38 pm ET

Last Comment: May 8, 2020 6:05 pm ET | 2 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

On Wednesday night's (May 6) edition of COSA TV, Jim Lawson of the Woodbine Entertainment Group indicated optimism toward a return to live racing across Ontario in the near future and outlined some of the preparations that management and horsepeople have made in anticipation of the gates reopening.

"There's light at the end of the tunnel," Lawson said to presenter Greg Blanchard. "We've always felt that way; we just didn't know how long the tunnel would be. I've said quite openly that we're hoping to resume live racing in June, and that's still the plan. We're putting detailed plans in place to ensure that happens."

Many of those plans involve strict physical distancing measures that have been followed on the Woodbine Racetrack backstretch during the lapse in racing, as well as at numerous Standardbred training centres across Ontario.

"We have shown through live racing at Mohawk and operating the backstretch at Woodbine — for two months, now — that we can operate in a safe environment," Lawson continued. "I think we are a business that can move ahead in June. We're not talking about next week; we're talking about doing this right. We're working with medical consultants to make sure they have blessed our protocols, and with government."

The Standardbred operations at Woodbine Mohawk Park, Flamboro Downs and The Raceway at Western Fair District have a distinct leg up on other businesses and sporting entities when it comes to working back to full strength — even without spectators on site to begin with.

"We learned a lot on March 16," said Lawson. "What we learned on March 16, we tried to implement on March 19. When we come back, we'll be that much further ahead with what we learned on those days and what we learned in the interim."

Central Ontario Standardbred Association president Bill O'Donnell shares Lawson's optimism with respect to horsepeople's preparedness for returning to racing:

""The first and foremost thing is we have to keep ourselves distanced and follow the protocol. We did a good job of it the last couple days (in March). I think it will all work. We were very careful."

Given the reality that spectators will be absent from racetrack plants when action resumes, O'Donnell points to strong off-track handle — particularly through Horse Player Interactive — as a bright spot that racetracks can capitalize on.

"If we get up racing in June before some of the other tracks, our $2 million handle on Saturday nights could be $6 or $7 million. If we can do that for a few weeks, we can recoup what we've lost.

"Most of our betting is on TV now. I know that food and beverage will take a real licking every place. But if the handle can double or triple, that might make up for some of what's lost."

Even despite a potential change in qualifying rules when racing resumes, O'Donnell feels confident that long-term gains can offset any potential lull in wagering turnover.

"We've asked to waive the qualifying rule for any horse who qualified back to Feb. 1," said O'Donnell. "I've talked to numerous trainers, and they're all training fast miles once a week. I think it'd be good. There was a concern about the handicappers ... that they won't bet the first week. My contention is, if they were betting $2 million on a Saturday night (before), they'll bet. How many 1993 Blue Jays games can you watch in a week?"

To maximize visibility while other sports remain dark, Lawson has indicated the possibility for races to air on mainstream television ... at least for the time being.

"We had a good conversation with TSN yesterday," said Lawson. "We've had numerous conversations, but it moved ahead. They're interested in our product.

"The trick is going to be getting out ahead of some other sports in terms of their interests. In terms of prime time, we want to get out ahead of that if we can and do an upgraded production, to some extent. The focus is getting a quality show in place."

While Premier and Signature tracks in the province are equipped to weather the lack of on-track attendance, the fate of the 2020 season at Grassroots facilities remains extremely uncertain.

"The summertime tracks are fan-based tracks," O'Donnell said, noting the extent that on-track handle and festive atmospheres contribute to the success of the likes of Clinton and Hanover Raceways, among others. "We're lucky at Western Fair and Mohawk — and even Georgian to a sense — that we can keep people apart, but some of them don't. And, at what costs? If they're going to cut into their pocket, it's going to be tough. It's going to be a decision for each individual racetrack."

Lawson touched further on the proposal to allow wagering on historical horse racing in Ontario, as well as Dark Horse, an artificial intelligence-driven wagering app geared toward novice players and sports bettors in particular.

Horsepeople in Ontario are well invested in marketing as well, as O'Donnell indicated COSA's involvement in campaigns on the track and on the freeways alike.

"Make them aware," O'Donnell said of the rising popularity of trailer wraps among Standardbred horsepeople — "travelling billboards," as Blanchard termed them.

"The Steacys have three (trailer wraps) — they're on the road from here to Ottawa," O'Donnell continued. "Carmen Auciello comes across the 407 and 401, and from the other end of the province we've got Bob McIntosh. By August, you should see a few of them on the road. As long as they're on the road and somebody sees them — everybody likes a horse."

The full COSA TV broadcast appears below.

May 8, 2020 - 6:05 pmHave any decisions been made

chris cain SAID...

Have any decisions been made as to what tracks we might race at when racing does restart? I for one would love to know where I'll be racing this summer. Hiawatha has no simulcast. Dresden, Clinton and Leamington - all three of those tracks rely mainly on fans in the stands and i am not sure if they would break $10,000 in handle by simulcast. WFR (London) lost its last two months of racing and the plan was to close at the end of May. WFR normally has conventions/concerts/fairs from June-Sept, but all those would already have been canceled. Has the idea of possibly racing extended race dates at WFR been given any thought?

May 7, 2020 - 11:24 amI hope we don’t totally

Tom Bain SAID...

I hope we don’t totally forget about the grassroots tracks.
If we do, hundreds of stables will close their doors,
and thousands of people who are both directly and indirectly
connected to the industry will be unemployed.

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