Mohawk’s new lease on life

Now that the Woodbine Entertainment Group has secured a long-term lease on its gaming hall with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG) corporation, Jim Lawson said capital improvements can begin that could one day lead to year-round racing at the Ontario track.

by Dave Briggs

Jim Lawson has long said securing a long-term gaming lease at Mohawk Racetrack is critical to the track’s survival. So it was no wonder the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) was positively buoyant a week after WEG announced it had signed a long-term deal with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG) corporation to keep — and possibly expand — a gaming hall at Canada’s flagship harness track.

“It’s been the focus for myself and Woodbine Entertainment for the last year, trying to gain some stability and security for Mohawk, for the town of Milton, for the employees and, in large part, for that southwestern Ontario standardbred community. It’s good news,” he said Tuesday.

Under the Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP), the horse racing industry shared in the revenue from the slot machines at Ontario’s tracks. When SARP ended in 2013, the tracks that kept slot parlors entered into lease agreements with the OLG on the gaming space. The amount was less than had been earned under SARP, but an important, steady revenue stream nonetheless. Though the OLG had committed to a long-term lease deal for Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, under a gaming modernization review, the lottery corporation was, until recently, still deciding whether it wanted to keep a gaming hall at Mohawk despite it being the third most lucrative slot parlor in the province during the SARP era.

Lawson said without the long-term lease deal — neither party disclosed terms — WEG likely could not have afforded to keep Mohawk open for long because the cost to operate two expensive facilities would have been too great. If Mohawk had closed, WEG would have raced standardbreds and thoroughbreds at Woodbine only.

“We’ve been pretty clear that we would like Mohawk to survive, but from a vibrancy standpoint, from a pure economic standpoint, we really needed a partner out at Mohawk to give it the opportunity,” Lawson said. “WEG’s greatest concern is sustaining the industry and sustaining the jobs and the livelihood of people. And this particularly impacts rural Ontario and southwestern Ontario so Mohawk, for us, is a natural and something we wanted to keep going. But, it was in large part tied to a long-term relationship with OLG.

“This basically extends out the current deal… It’s giving us that security of tenure and, in order to get that security of tenure, our commitment was really to invest capital there… and we’re excited about it.

Lawson said capital improvements would likely include refurbishment of Mohawk’s dining room.

“We’d like to potentially run a Breeders Crown there some day, so it would be setting it up to be able to accommodate a Breeders Crown,” Lawson said.

Other improvements likely will include upgrading some washrooms and putting in new glass to “generally winterize it and give us the option, if we do the capital expansion and refurbishment, that we can run more racing out there, which will be great for our horsemen.

“This decision has not been made, but it certainly opens up the opportunity now to look at racing more dates at Mohawk, as opposed to Woodbine.”

Lawson said the idea of racing year-round at Mohawk would then be an option, but is not one WEG has decided, yet.

“I would say, certainly, that the opportunity to race year round (at Mohawk) is good,” Lawson said. “Something tells me that if we’re running there more months (at Mohawk) then there’s a good possibility, in this environment, where horse supply is an issue, that people will stay around and race there.

Lawson said while renovations are being made at Mohawk, standardbred racing might need to be held at Woodbine longer in the near term to accommodate construction.

All that will take time to sort out, but in the short term, the news that Mohawk will be sustainable for years to come is positive, Lawson said.

“I think it’s fantastic for the industry. I think the fact that Mohawk is going to be around, it’s going to thrive and we are going to put capital into our racetrack – that has got to be good news for everyone,” he said.