By Newswriter — Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson said he is hoping live racing will return to Ontario sometime in June or July, though he anticipates it will be without spectators.
Lawson made the remarks Wednesday afternoon during an interactive question and answer webcast with horse people, hosted by Woodbine’s on-air personality Jason Portuondo. It was broadcast on the Canadian organization’s website on Wednesday. A replay is available here.
Like many circuits in North America, Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing are on hold in Ontario because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Woodbine’s opening day had been set for April 18, and officials have already announced postponement of the 161st running of the Queen’s Plate on June 27. Standardbred racing at Woodbine Mohawk was suspended March 20. The provincial government has extended its declaration of emergency through May 12, shuttering all “non-essential” businesses.
“We are bound by that,” Lawson said during the Q&A session. “As an industry, we need to do our part. We have to do the right thing here.”
When pressed by Portuondo to give his best guess when racing might resume, Lawson said: “If someone said June 15 or July 1, I’d say ‘sign me up.’”
Lawson was chairman of Woodbine in 2012 when the Ontario government pulled the carpet out from under the horse industry by suddenly ending the slots at racetracks program. Calling it a “huge blow to the industry,” Portuondo asked Lawson how he compared that crisis with what racing and other businesses face today.
“Certainly very stressful on the stakeholders of the industry – both crises,” said Lawson. “One of the mistakes I think we made at the time (2012) was not communicating (to the industry). A lot of people didn’t breed horses, a lot of people got out of the industry. That’s a mistake we are not going to duplicate now.”
Saying the racing and breeding industries have a much better relationship with government than they had in 2012 and ’13, Lawson said: “We are stronger today. The funding agreement (a 20-year deal went into effect in 2018) is in place. It gives stability to this industry for the next 20 years. As terrible as this is, we know this is going to end. There is light at the end of the tunnel. … We are doing everything we can to make sure we are going to be prepared and ready and come back strong.”
Lawson said he is hoping to get positive signals from government officials by mid-May to prepare for a return to racing and that it will take a minimum four to six weeks for horses currently stabled at Woodbine to be race-ready. Currently, they are allowed to exercise but not breeze. He said Woodbine does not have the essential staff on hand to supervise workout activity. “We are under very strict guidelines and people have to respect and understand that,” Lawson said. “We’ll get through this.
“The good news, as people have seen in the United States, is horse racing is one of the sports and entertainment properties that can go on and operate without spectators,” Lawson said. “That gives us an advantage. We are not gate-driven like a lot of other sports and entertainment properties.
“We are working right now on new procedures and guidelines for live racing.”
Lawson said Woodbine has retained a doctor on staff to help with decisions and develop standard operating procedures to maintain the highest level of safety in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. “We’re going to do our best to keep racing going and keep horses on our backstretch,” he said. “We’ll know it and feel it if we’re putting too many lives at risk.”
Woodbine currently has 1,100 horses stabled on its backstretch and is not permitting any more until given clear signals that the track can prepare to resume racing. Hours for training are extremely limited.
“We have stall applications for more than 1,800 horses,” Lawson said. “From a safety standpoint we do not want to overcrowd the track.”
When the time comes, Lawson said, “We’ll give these horses lots of time to get ready.”
Lawson encouraged horse owners to apply for immediate relief funds made available by Ontario Racing through the purse funding agreement with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. The funds pay up to $1,500 per month for Ontario-based Thoroughbreds in training. He reminded owners that 2-year-olds can fall under the program’s umbrella beginning June 1.
Despite those funds and hopes that things should return to normal in 2021, Lawson warned that the industry is “going to feel a hardship” and “needs to find different ways to generate revenue.”
To that end, he said, Woodbine is working with government to seek approval of historical horse racing machines to boost revenue. “It likely will take an interpretation of the criminal code,” he said. “We definitely need (historical horse racing revenue) to care for the horses, to support the horse people.”
Lawson said he expects racing will return without spectators before the casino at Woodbine is permitted to reopen.