Live racing returned to Mohawk Racetrack Thursday under a new name at a partially-renovated plant that will now be home to year-round harness racing. But is leaving Woodbine Racetrack a good thing?
by Dave Briggs
Even on a rainy Thursday morning, the track you know as Mohawk Racetrack in Campbellville, ON was already buzzing in anticipation of Opening Night.
“Definitely, the staff are pumped and the place is a flurry of activity with the cleaning and prepping in the dining room. The paddock is ready to go, of course, but there is lots of last-minute stuff elsewhere,” said Jessica Buckley, president of the newly-named Woodbine, Mohawk Park— also to be referred to as WoodbineSB to denote standardbred racing in the dual-breed operation.
Buckley was referring both to Thursday’s opening race card of 2018 at Woodbine, Mohawk Park— the first marking Mohawk as the permanent home to harness racing in the Woodbine operation — and some of the $10 million worth of renovations to the plant that should be completed in a few weeks. She said she was looking forward to the start of the new era at one of Canada’s most beloved tracks.
“One of my favorite moments is when the customers come in and get their program and they just have this excitement when they grab their program and everyone is smiling and everyone is feeling that anticipation. I’ve been at a lot of Opening Days and that’s the most exciting part, when the people walk in,” she said.
Oddly, that giddy feeling may be a thing of the past now at Mohawk. With racing scheduled to be year-round at Woodbine, Mohawk Park, there will be no more Opening Days for the foreseeable future. Monday was the last harness card at Woodbine Racetrack. The Woodbine standardbred track is already under construction to transform it into a second thoroughbred turf track.
Most horsepeople prefer racing at Mohawk and are not sorry to leave Woodbine, which was never a perfect setup for the sport. The harness track was the third one out from a massive grandstand, making it a particularly poor experience for on-track fans. Even the on-track product left a lot to be desired.
HARNESS RACING LEAVES THE GTA
That said, not everyone is cheering the move.
Canadian Hall of Fame trainer Blair Burgess said his initial concern about leaving Woodbine permanently was the fact harness racing would no longer be contested in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Mohawk resides to the west of the city and is not, technically, considered to be part of the GTA.
“There’s been harness racing in the GTA for a hundred years plus, and now there’s not,” Burgess said. “I’m just a little sour because it’s sort of like an eviction, really.”
Burgess said Woodbine Racetrack was built by thoroughbred interests for thoroughbreds and the only reason harness racing landed there was because the Woodbine Entertainment Group (then called the Ontario Jockey Club (OJC)) got into money trouble in the years before the Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP) was launched and had to sell Greenwood to developers in order to stay afloat. That move forced harness racing to Woodbine for part of the year because the sulky set had nowhere else to go when Mohawk was closed for the season.
“Don’t kid yourself, there’s a 25-year resentment there (from the thoroughbred side),” Burgess said. “It was such an old boy’s league there at one time and it was probably sacrilegious that we were ever there in the first place, but they had no solution when they closed Greenwood, so that’s what they did.”
Trainer/driver Roger Mayotte has an interesting perspective on Woodbine. He won the very first harness race at Woodbine on Jan. 1, 1994 with a pacer named Boastful and also one of the last when he drove Machal Jordan to victory Saturday (April 7) on the second last race card held at the track located just down the road from Toronto’s Pearson Airport.
He said he still has a vivid memory of that first harness card at Woodbine on a seven-eighths mile track that replaced the old thoroughbred turf track. Greenwood, like Mohawk at that time, was a five-eighths mile track.
“I still remember it to this day, driving from home and turning up (highway) 427 and you could see the big grandstand lights of Woodbine… it was kind of like how the Meadowlands used to look when we went there. It was pretty exciting knowing that I was going to have the opportunity on a big track in Canada, which we hadn’t had before,” Mayotte said.
Over time, however, Mayotte said his enthusiasm for racing at Woodbine faded.
“I’m looking forward to Mohawk year-round,” he said.
IS RACING BETTER AT MOHAWK?
“It became evident when Mohawk became a seven-eighths track… that Woodbine was at a disadvantage in racing just because of the design and the tighter turns compared to Mohawk, the big sweeping turn. The fields would get strung out too far at Woodbine. You had less of an advantage to come off the pace at Woodbine compared to Mohawk. That’s how things went. You’d turn for home at Mohawk and the whole field would be within five or six lengths, all bunched up, but at Woodbine sometimes the field would be 10 to 12 lengths stretched out. You had very little chance, coming from out of it, at Woodbine. Mohawk created more fair racing than Woodbine. It was frustrating for everyone — drivers, trainers and the bettors. When the field would get stretched out at Woodbine… some horses were 15 lengths back at the half, you know. It’s not the horse’s fault, it’s the style of the racetrack,” Mayotte said.
Trainer John Bax is another horseman that raced at Woodbine from the beginning. His Hall of Fame trotter Goodtimes was three the year Woodbine opened to harness racing in 1994 and the trotter spent many years battling his chief rival Glorys Comet — seemingly weekly — in the track’s earliest standardbred days. In 1999, Goodtimes won the Maple Leaf Trot at Woodbine, and it stands as one of Bax’s favorite Woodbine memories, along with a Breeders Crown win by Duke Of York in 2001 and Define The World winning an Ontario Sires Stakes Super Final in 2008.
Bax said the move from Greenwood on the shore of Lake Ontario in downtown Toronto to Woodbine was “quite a change” and not necessarily one for the better.
“I think it’s been well-documented that racing from the third track to the inside was less-than-desirable. The track was half-mile turns and half-mile racing, so I was never enamored with the racetrack, per se. The turns were banked too much and if you went too wide around the turns, you were lucky to hold your position. If you went three-wide, you went backwards,” Bax said of Woodbine. “At Mohawk, you could go three-wide and hold your position or two-wide and it’s not a big deal, so I guess, looking ahead, I think it’s better for racing at Mohawk. I think it’s better racing.”
Burgess disagreed that the racing is better at Mohawk.
“I think the lack of flow and all those things are just as bad at Mohawk as they are at Woodbine. To me, there’s no difference between the two,” Burgess said. “If I was to reach a little bit, you can maybe wait a little longer at Mohawk. If you wait, you might be able to find room or get up late. The stretch, maybe, provides a little bit of an opportunity for closers… I’d have to look at it statistically, but I still think that, at Mohawk, nine and 10-holes are terrible… and the lack of flow down the backstretch is just as bad. They are just as gapped out as they are at Woodbine. I don’t see any difference.”
Bax is among many horsepeople that never really warmed up to Woodbine. He was at the track on Saturday for its second last card and said he wasn’t emotional about the end of harness racing there.
“Something about that place. You were distanced from the grandstand, you watched the races on TV, even if you were there,” Bax said. “The old paddock was closer to the grandstand. You’d have owners come over a little more and you’d interact there, but where the new paddock was, I bet I never had a handful of owners ever come over there. It was like we were in different worlds. That’s what I like about Mohawk, you can run over to the grandstand and it takes you two minutes. You can have a beer with the owners and then go back if you have a horse racing later. There’s more interaction.”
BETTER FAN EXPERIENCE
Burgess agreed that Mohawk provides a much better fan experience in the summer, adding that management might look to even more projects that get people closer to the horses. One idea he has is that Woodbine should open the paddock cafeteria up to the public with a big glass window looking into the paddock. In order to keep the paddock secure, security could be stationed between the restaurant and the rest of the paddock.
Yet, no matter how much people like Mohawk in the summer, Burgess cautioned people not to expect much in the way of on-track patrons once the weather turns colder.
“I guarantee at Mohawk it’s going to be Death Valley there in January,” he said.
But Buckley said having racing at Mohawk 12 months a year could help draw more people in colder months.
“That’s our big opportunity locally to communicate that we are here 12 months a year,” she said. “I think, in the past, people didn’t know that we were here or not. There wasn’t that consistency. Now, they know they can come out 12 months a year and have that great experience. I think the racing is fantastic here and now we’re going to be under the Woodbine brand on our simulcast and I think the wagering is going to be strong. There will be a small learning curve, in the next couple of weeks, as our bettors get accustomed to the fact that it’s under Woodbine SB, but hopefully that will settle down quickly and the numbers will stay strong. I’m looking forward to a great season.”
Burgess agreed with Bax that there’s an advantage to having Mohawk open year-round, particularly for training.
“That’s going to be huge,” Bax said, “because I don’t care how good you are at keeping your own track, it’s hard to keep a farm track or even a training center track where you can go big miles.”
Burgess said converting Mohawk to a mile track from a seven-eighths would have been good for business.
“It would have made the simulcast product tons better. So if they are really in the business of selling product, which is what we are supposed to be now — because it’s not about live attendance, it’s about having the best product that you can put up in the air — if that’s what is it about, then a mile track would have made it special. It would have identified it.”
Bax agreed that a mile track would be preferable, but he and the Central Ontario Standardbred Association (COSA) that represents the horsepeople that race at Mohawk, have been told the cost to build it would be $4-5 million.
“It may be on the backburner,” Bax said. “Our wish list had a $10 million, brand new paddock and they are patching up the old one. It is what it is.”
Buckley said Woodbine has, “definitely thought about (expanding to a mile track), because we’ve had horsemen make the suggestion. We’ve looked at it and it’s a very expensive endeavor at this time. We’re able to have a 10-horse field on the track now, so for us to be able to consider a mile track, it would be down the road as we are able to grow and be successful. It could be a consideration, but not at this time.”
She is, however, excited about the changes that have been made.
WHAT’S NEW AT MOHAWK
“We’ve been able to complete quite a few of the projects,” Buckley said. “Number one, the winterization upgrades to the race paddock have been completed, which is great. That included not only bathrooms in the paddock, but new doors, windows and an upgrade to the drivers’ room, which really looks fantastic.
“Inside the building, the dining room bathrooms have all been upgraded and finished on the second level. They are all refreshed. A lot of new paint and a lot of the rebranding – so the change to the Woodbine Mohawk Park brand and the images around the building are all fresh and new.
“The glass we replaced is in the Terrace trackside buffet. It was all the original glass in the 1960s and had become a little on the foggy side in places. It was thin and it wasn’t going to withstand sitting next to it in the winter months. They’ve replaced all the panes along the dining room. It looks great.
“We built a new kitchen in the dining room, which is going to serve our new restaurant, MHK, or Mohawk Harvest Kitchen. It’s ready, but it needs a couple more weeks of cleaning and training with the staff. It’s the former Terrace Lounge area and it will be open every night and we’re just going to be sampling some of the new menu with the customers, and serving our existing menu until the kitchen is up to full operation in the next couple of weeks.
“The other area that should be ready two weeks from now is the corporate suites that we put in on level six and level seven of the dining room. They are great.
“One thing that we are working towards, not confirmed, but working toward, is an extension of the current race paddock, which would allow for box stalls to be created, instead of the standing stalls that we have now. That’s one project, on the racing side. Inside the building, we just want to continue to refresh all of the customer spaces and have it be an exciting, comfortable environment for everyone.”
STALE PRODUCT OR CHANGING WORLD?
As for year-round racing, Burgess said he worries staying at Mohawk permanently will make for a stale product.
“Maybe racing has changed, but the list of tracks that have year-round racing and are successful is zero. It’s zero. It just gets so stale and it never has worked,” Burgess said.
As for leaving Toronto, Bax said he doesn’t think it will be as big a deal as some are suggesting.
“I think a lot of people think we’re losing Toronto, but we’re not in any newspapers in Toronto anymore anyway. The number say that 85 per cent of the money is bet off-track. To me, a lot of those arguments are non-starters,” Bax said. “The problems we have in this industry have been there for the last 20 years and going to Mohawk isn’t going to change them. There are other things that have to be done, obviously, but it’s not whether or not we’re at Woodbine. The North America Cup, when it’s out at Mohawk and it’s advertised, the place is full.”
Besides, Bax said, in 30-40 years, given how much Toronto is growing, the area where Mohawk is located will likely be considered part of the GTA.
“We’re not going to be around, but I think the city is going to grow,” he said.
Putting harness right back in the thick of Canada’s biggest city.