Better Together

May 1, 2016

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Ontario’s Standardbred Alliance made great strides in its second year — including a nearly 10 per cent increase in all-sources wagering — indicating working together may just be key to harness racing’s survival.

by Dave Briggs

Jeff Gural said the industry could learn a lot from Ontario’s Standardbred Alliance.

Gural, the owner of the Meadowlands, Vernon and Tioga Downs, has long preached the need for tracks to work together on a major marketing plan and better coordinate schedules to combat the horse shortage problem.

“I think Ontario has a major advantage over the tracks in the U.S. because Ontario tracks do work together,” Gural said of the Alliance, a consortium of eight Ontario racetracks — Mohawk and Woodbine at the premier level; Flamboro, Georgian Grand River and Western Fair at the middle signature level and Clinton and Hanover at the grassroots level. The Alliance was created in April of 2014 to work together to coordinate schedules, promote wagering and stakes opportunities for all and provide a more consistent customer experience across the group.

Wagering numbers seem to indicate that working together has distinct benefits over the old system where the province’s tracks operated in fiefdoms and competed against each other for customers, horses and wagering dollars.

In its second full year of existence, the Alliance saw all-sources wagering increase 9.63 per cent from just over $394 million in its first year to more than $432 million through March 31, 2016.

Dr. Ted Clarke, general manager of Grand River Raceway in Elora, ON, said, “we have succeeded in reversing the trend in wager, which is, for sure, a first step and a necessary first step.”

Clarke said the elimination of rancor between racetracks is key to that wagering growth.

The Alliance is managed by the Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG), which helps coordinate schedules, promote the Alliance racing product in its vast simulcast network and even manages smaller tracks’ stakes programs, which has also increased exposure for those stakes.

“The wager last year on Industry Day when we ran the two stakes that we run was the highest it has been anytime since we came to Elora. So, the promotion, awareness and delivery all have something to say about that,” said Clarke, referring to Grand River’s stakes-rich card featuring the Battle of Waterloo and Battle of the Belles races.

Clarke said the smaller tracks in the Alliance have benefited from WEG’s exposure on TVG. Often, early races at Grand River and The Raceway at The Western Fair District appear on TVG prior to the start of a card at Mohawk or Woodbine.

“We start a bit earlier than Mohawk and because TVG is going to carry Mohawk, they take us for the first two races because they can do it without having to change their supplier network chain. We would never gain that exposure without the Alliance,” Clarke said.

Jamie Martin, chair of the Alliance, said the export market has flourished for the Standardbred Alliance.

“We have also seen the coordinated racing model, competitive racing and increased distribution into markets outside of Ontario contributing nicely to our wagering handle and fan interest metrics,” Martin said.

Home Market Area (HMA) wagering, which includes live and simulcast betting at the Alliance tracks, WEG’s on-track, and Champions Off-Track operations, was some $836 million in 2015-16. That is an increase of about $28 million over the $808 million bet in 2014-15.

“We are pleased to see our customer-focused model working for the Standardbred Alliance,” Martin said. “The Champions Off-Track brand has expanded its footprint to all corners of the province and betting on horse racing is available and convenient to many Ontarians within their neighborhoods. This coordinated effort proves the key factions within the horse racing industry can work together to offer an outstanding product for our current fan base and potential new long term customers.”

Clarke said challenges still abound both in terms of horse supply and purse levels at the middle (signature) and lower (grassroots) tiers of racing in the province.

“I don’t think there’s anybody in the horse business in Ontario that doesn’t know that there isn’t enough purse money at a good number of racetracks. The cloud that hangs over racing is that,” Clarke said. “We need to pick up the slack and find purse money so people can participate.”

As for horse supply, the number of mares bred in Ontario dropped precipitously from some 2,897 to 1,817 (37 per cent) between 2012 and 2013, the year the province announced the cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP). The number went down to 1,724 in 2014, which is contributing to the horse supply problem.

Fortunately, the breeding industry in the province seems to have rebounded thanks, in part, to new breeders awards and an annual $100 million funding agreement from the province that runs through 2021.

The number of mares bred in Ontario increased 22 per cent in 2015 to 2,111 and word is the number is expected to be up marginally in 2016, as well.

“I don’t know that we can say that we have solved the problem of horse supply,” Clarke said. “But we certainly have more mares bred last year.

“The increase in foals born in Ontario in the face of a negative response everywhere else is, I think, something worth commenting on as a point of success.”

Martin said, “going forward it may be difficult to keep field size up. We intend to work with government, Ontario’s horsepeople and other industry influencers to ensure we are able to avoid detracting from the great strides we have made to deliver an outstanding customer experience.”

For the time being, Ontario’s Standardbred Alliance is proving working together has a number of benefits.
— with files from the Standardbred Alliance

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