Woodbine Consultation Draws Crowd; Meeting In Ajax Wednesday

Published: July 9, 2013 08:20 pm EDT

Those looking to have their voice heard regarding the future of the Ontario horse racing are now looking forward to Wednesday afternoon at Ajax Downs, as a passionate panel of invested industry members touched on all aspects of the industry Tuesday at Woodbine Racetrack.

Members of Premier Wynne's horse-racing transitional panel will consult with industry participants from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Wednesday at Ajax Downs. The forum will follow a pair of positive sessions. The first came Monday at the Western Fair District, followed by Tuesday's session at Woodbine.

The industry representatives in attendance listened to addresses from the panel and Ontario Lottery and Gaming CEO Rod Phillips before breaking off into groups tackling the topics of grassroots racing, governance and measures of success, among other things.

After the groups discussed the topics they were tasked with analyzing, a group representative explained the findings to all that were in attendance.

One of the first people to explain his group's thoughts was owner/breeder Marvin Katz, who has recently achieved some paramount success within the industry with Pepsi North America Cup winner Captaintreacherous. Katz touched on two things in particular: the first being the absolute need for Woodbine Racetrack to continue to host live harness racing, and the second being the issue of half-mile racing in the panel's draft plan for the future.

"As breeders and participants in this industry, we think it is absolutely essential that Woodbine Racetrack remain a standardbred facility," said Katz. "If Woodbine was not available to stage standardbred racing, we would be severing over 50 per cent of the Toronto market from ever attending a standardbred race in the Province of Ontario."

Katz went on to say, "If you live east of Yonge Street in the City of Toronto, the five tracks that are proposed (to host live standardbred racing going forward under the draft plan) would virtually eliminate almost all on-track participation from anyone in Toronto of ever attending a live standardbred race (due to travel considerations, accessibility, exposure, etc.). We believe that the proposal that has been put forward is critically flawed in that Woodbine provides access for all the GTA --- particularly the eastern portion of the City of Toronto --- which is an enormous market that must be part of our plan."

Katz spoke out on the fact that three of the five harness raceways in Ontario (going forward under the draft plan) are half-mile tracks. Katz said that the move is not conducive to the best interests of breeding or wagering handle in the province.

"On behalf of breeders, half-mile racing should not be a focal part of the going-forward plan. Modern racing is not conducive to half-mile racing. It is part of our industry and part of our culture in the past, but large fields of horses --- ten-horse fields --- that present a possibility of victory for all of the race's participants is part of attracting new customers to the track and increasing handle."

Katz went on to say, "owners and breeders of great horses will not race them on half-mile tracks. I will tell you that I am a part-owner of Captaintreacherous --- he's one of the leading three-year-old pacers in North America right now --- he has never set foot on a half-mile track, and he probably never will. Wheeling N Dealin, who is a probably the pre-imminent three-year-old trotting colt in North America right now, has never stepped foot on a half-mile track. In the proposal put forward by the province, three of the five tracks in the go-forward plan are half-mile venues."

One person that publicly supported Katz's half-mile feelings during the Monday session was breeder/owner Chris Alexander, who has worked in conjunction with Ontario's Horse Improvement Program in the past. On Monday, Alexander was speaking on behalf of his group, which had discussed the topic of 'measures of success' for the provincial industry going forward.

Alexander and his group broke down the idea of the horse-racing industry's customer into three categories: 1) The consumer - the person that attends the track; 2) The horseplayer - the person that generates revenue for the business; and, 3) The horse owner - also a customer of the industry.

On behalf of his group, Alexander announced and explained some of the benchmarks and measures of success that should be implemented for the horse-racing industry going forward. Those points appear below, followed by Alexander's quotes on the ideas (Also, it is important to point out that even though Alexander went into brief detail about the below points, his group emphasized that the single most important measure of success is the increase of wagering pool size).

EMPLOYMENT - "In one year from now, if we can say that we have short-term stabilization in employment, so people would know that they have a job in this industry, we think that would be successful. In five years from now, if we could look back and say that we have now grown the amount of employees in this business because of what we have done, then we will know that we have done the right things and we have strengthened our foundation and grown together."

DOMESTIC WAGERING - "We thought that it was very important to deal with domestic wagering because the government has said that it will match the commissions from wagering. We believe that event marketing and attendance has worked very well in improving on-track handle. A perfect example is the Queen's Plate from this past Sunday, and another perfect example is the Meadowlands. Both have increased their on-track handle by creating great events."

INCENTIVES FOR HORSEPLAYERS - "If you look at any consumer over the past 10 years, when they sign up for anything they are getting points or a tablet or something back. We need to move into the future. When you look at any young customer, they're all saying the same thing: What is in it for me? We need to get in the market for our consumers, and we think that we should have incentives for our horseplayers."

OWNERS - "A lot of times, owners don't get treated as customers in this business. There are a lot of owners in this game that don't make their living in this business. It is important that we treat owners as customers, and right now the owner is scarred. We have to realize this and give the owners that we have today a reason to reinvest. For new owners, they have to have some sort of incentive."

IF YOU WANT TO ATTRACT THE GAMBLER, INCREASE THE POOL SIZE - "I got introduced to horse racing when I went to university. My friend said to me, 'Let's go to the track and bet the Sweet Six.' The Sweet Six was $760,000 back in 1982. The reason it was $760,000 is because there was no other gaming. Now the gambler has so many different options to invest his/her money. If you want to attract the gambler, you have to increase the pool size. Everything that we have talked about has to have the overall goal of increasing pool size. If you really want to fix the standardbred game and the thoroughbred game, fix the pool size."

In addition to explaining his group's points, Alexander said that in terms of reinvestment and retaining customers, the horse-racing industry needs to do what the casino industry does in terms of catering to the customer. Also, Alexander stressed that Ontario horse racing has to come up with a proper Triple Crown which is consistent and is something that a fan or prospective fan can look forward to and anticipate.

Speaking on behalf of his group, horse owner Jeff Wellwood discussed some ideas regarding how Ontario horse racing might be able to grow revenue. He presented the idea of growing wagering handle through more provincial locations of the Woodbine Entertainment Group's WEGZ Stadium Bar, or at least something of that nature that would have racing branding and push the simulcasting of Ontario racing.

Wellwood also discussed the idea of attracting 'Corporate Toronto' revenue into Woodbine Racetrack. "This is biased to Woodbine specifically," said Wellwood, "but 'Corporate Toronto' has a lot of disposable income. They want to get their brand out there, and they could reach out to the racetracks. How about the idea of advertising in puck-boards, where all along the stretch they have corporate advertising? Maybe with that advertising, bring them in (the advertisers, or guests of the advertisers) and give them 10 free dining seats. It would get more people to the racetrack, create more awareness and open up a way to create more revenue and exposure."

Wellwood also discussed how jackpot wagering is a no-brainer in attracting new fans. "When Lotto Max announces they have guaranteed pools of $40 million, people are more likely to bet. So, there may be some regulations that have to be changed, however, if [racing] could get some sort of guaranteed pools we think that would generate a lot more revenue."

Other notable speakers from the afternoon included horse owner Georg Leber and horseman Anthony MacDonald, both of which discussed their group's feelings on industry governance going forward.

"The draft is telling us that we can't govern our own industry," said Leber, "and that didn't sit very well with us."

Leber later said, "The other part was referring to the recommendation that the Government appoint the members of Ontario Live Racing. Right away we saw that as more of a 'parachuting-in' of friends of the government, somewhat like Senate appointees, which we all know doesn't work quite well. So, to that end, we think that is a horrible idea. I guess we will have to come up with a recommendation as to how we get people involved in Ontario Live Racing."

He went on to say, "It would be difficult for one group to govern all three disciplines (breeds), so the OLR model broken down into the three different breeds can work, as long as the representatives coming from those individual breeds are elected by the people that represent that breed."

MacDonald then spoke about Governance, and stressed that action has to be initiated right now and not just in the coming months.

"A lot of stuff with the OLR has to be implemented immediately," said MacDonald. "I know the Legislature is going to sit in the fall, and I think that anything that needs to be done, or needs the help of the government, needs to be started before the Legislature sits, because there is going to be nothing done there for quite some time.

"We need to get on with this immediately, because there are a lot of people looking forward to this industry growing and we can't afford to drag our feet any longer."

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