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‘Stronger Together’ Recap

Published: December 11, 2019 2:19 pm ET

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On Wednesday, December 11 in the backstretch of Woodbine Racetrack, Woodbine Entertainment conducted the most recent edition of the ‘Stronger Together: United Ontario Horse Racing for a Sustainable Future’ series. The Wednesday installment discussed Woodbine’s 2019 live Thoroughbred season and what the future holds for the track.

The session featured three well known Woodbine personalities: commentator Jason Portuondo, CEO Jim Lawson, and Jonathan Zammit, VP of Woodbine’s Thoroughbred racing operations.

The trio discussed all things Woodbine Thoroughbred for roughly an hour, and touched on a myriad of topics and issues that the track and its horsepeople are currently facing.

The topics, which proved to be many, included Woodbine’s 2019 wagering and racing statistics, the urging pilot project, race-day medications, disqualification rules, the future of the backstretch, horse population issues, and transparency, to list a few.

Right off the top of the discussion, Lawson was clear to point out the ‘Stronger Together’ sessions have been an effort in transparency, and that he is a big proponent of them.

Right now, there are problems in the industry, the racetrack-side included, said Lawson, who was quick to point out that purse money for the next four years at Woodbine Racetrack is secured and not tied to wagering.

As those in the harness racing industry are well aware of, the Standardbred course at Woodbine Racetrack has since been converted to a second turf track (inner turf course) for Woodbine Thoroughbreds, as the company is positioning itself to be a global player in terms of runners on the sod. Lawson said that the inner turf course has been a success, but stressed that the track and its horsepeople have got to be patient with it going forward.

The CEO also pointed out that Woodbine Racetrack has re-entered the conversation when it comes to hosting the Breeders’ Cup. When it came to the topic of general horse supply, Lawson stated that it is an issue, but it’s an issue that is prevalent throughout the industry.

Zammit presented and broke down a high-level chart that highlighted some of Woodbine Racetrack’s key 2019 wagering and racing statistics. The statistics presented relatively slight declines year over year, but nothing major.

The VP of Woodbine’s Thoroughbred racing arm went on to discuss the recent race-day medication issues, stating that the banning of certain medications was a bit of a change for some of Woodbine’s regular Thoroughbred horsepeople, but not so much for the horsepople that tend to head south and race through the winter. In terms of the adherence to the new rules, Zammit started that there has been very good compliance and very good support of it.

Lawson discussed the urging pilot program which is currently underway at Woodbine, and stressed that Woodbine’s ability in the industry to try new things is very important in attracting new fans. He stated that Woodbine has to try new things, adding that cultures are changing and people are changing. “We can be a leader and drive change,” said Lawson.

Zammit went on to quickly outline and discuss key dates for Woodbine’s 2020 Thoroughbred season – some major stakes dates, when the backstretch will open, when the meet will end, etc. He stated that he will be officially releasing those dates and the 2020 racing schedule soon. In addition, Zammit said that a horse acquisition incentive will also be officially unveiled. He explained that the incentives are intended to help local horsepeople that are stabled at Woodbine Racetrack, and that the details will be released soon.

Woodbine is always trying to improve, said Zammit, who added that the track has a lot to work on. He said that Woodbine Racetrack wants to try new things to build on what it already has. “Not every idea is going to be a grand slam or a home run,” said Zammit, “but we’ve got to try.”

Lawson touched on current development at the track and the funding agreement throughout the course of the session. In terms of the latter, Lawson said “the money is there,” and stated that “government doesn’t have an ‘out’ in the new deal, which is important for a long-term outlook.”

Although funding is currently in place, Lawson stressed that Woodbine would not be resting on its laurels, instead saying that Woodbine needs to find ways to create additional sources of revenue and grow wagering at the same time. “The cranes are up, the development is moving ahead,” said Lawson, who also pointed out that the company is in the final stages of signing agreement with Metrolinx for the anticipated GO Station. The station is planned for the southeast corner of the property, which is, essentially, right on top of a busy section of the backstretch.

Lawson has stated that there is a very good chance that commercial/residential density could be introduced to the southeast corner of the property in the next 10 years, which would affect the backstretch area and the CTHS sales pavilion. Lawson said that another training track would be built if the current one is impacted, and that the projection date for the GO Station is 2025.

Lawson also said that Woodbine Racetrack is trying to earmark more money for Ontario-bred horses. He stated that Woodbine has been working hard with Ontario Racing on the matter. “We need to strengthen that part of our game,” said Lawson.

The topics were many and time was short, so Lawson did his best to sum up Woodbine’s position on things as the session wrapped.

Not every move is going to be popular, I get it, said Lawson. He added that whenever moves come, some people are thrilled, while some people aren’t happy. “We want to be transparent and want your feedback,” said Lawson. “We’re doing our best. We’re going to make mistakes.”

Lawson stated that Woodbine doesn’t have any agenda outside of helping things thrive. “We are doing our best under some very difficult challenges,” he said, adding, “we’re trying to do our best for everybody.

“The mandate here is to support and help horse racing. If people have questions, ask them, because we are transparent and we can provide our answers. We don’t have all of the answers, but we try to give answers.”

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