Horse racing is slated to return to Woodbine Mohawk Park on June 5, but with it comes the added responsibility for the industry to follow COVID-19 safety protocols to the letter to avoid another protracted shutdown.
by Dave Briggs
Jim Lawson said he was incredibly energized the night he learned horse racing was listed in phase one of Ontario’s COVID-19 re-opening plan, but now the CEO of the Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) has other reasons his sleep is being tested.
“This resumption of racing is not a ticket to all of a sudden let our guard down,” he said, referring to the planned re-opening of live racing on June 5 at Canada’s premier standardbred track, Woodbine Mohawk Park. “We have worked so hard, so carefully and so strategically to bring live racing back and I’m so concerned that now that it’s back people will think we’re passed all of this, but we’re not. This virus is still the same threat that it was. We’ve experienced better numbers because of the good work that everyone has done on physical distancing. (Ontario premier Doug) Ford’s government is letting people go ahead on that basis, but we can’t take a step backward. That’s where I lose sleep right now.”
Lawson’s message to the industry is simple: Many were desperate for racing to return. Now that it is restarting, every person must abide by the safety protocols and agree to Woodbine’s restrictions. One case of COVID-19 at the racetrack is enough to shut down the sport again and who knows when it might be able to return if there is a positive case.
“As soon as you start to open this up, as a result of racing, by definition, you’re increasing the risk,” Lawson said. “We have to be careful.”
Lawson referenced other sports leagues such as Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association that are talking about resuming play, but only if all the players are kept in a virtual bubble in one location until all games are finished. He said the challenge with horse racing is people and horses are coming in from all over the province and then going home.
“I’m very concerned that people start to let their guard down and forget about what got us there. We’ve done a lot of good things to get us to this point… but as we go back to racing, one single point of failure, whether it’s in the driver community or the jockey community or the starting gate community… is going to shut us down,” Lawson said.
LEARNING FROM MOHAWK
Fortunately, WEG had something of a test run in March on how to conduct harness racing while applying COVID-19 safety protocols.
“We started to understand the practicalities at Mohawk with horses leaving the paddock and coming back into the paddock after a race… horses arriving and how we can separate out races and post times. There were some really good lessons learned, even after just a couple of days. I think that helps a lot,” Lawson said. “There isn’t really a playbook or precedent on the harness racing side that there is on the thoroughbred side (established elsewhere by tracks such as Gulfstream that kept racing).
“There’s some logistics in the (standardbred) paddock of juggling an entire card of horses. We learned a lot at Mohawk, but it’s not like there’s anywhere else for us to turn to like calling the people at Gulfstream on the thoroughbred side and saying ‘How are you guys doing this?’”
Lawson that quoted famous French philosopher Voltaire.
“Voltaire said, ‘Perfect is the enemy of good’ and we’ve just got to get this good to begin with and learn as we go along.”
PURSES UNCHANGED FOR 2020
In the more good news department, despite the six-week shutdown, Lawson said he doesn’t expect any significant changes to standardbred purses in 2020, but he stressed purses in 2021 and 2022 will likely be impacted by both racing’s shutdown and the closure of the casinos.
Now that the Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP) has been eliminated, tracks no longer receive a direct cut of slot revenue, but casinos do provide significant revenue to WEG to lease the gaming space at both Mohawk and Woodbine.
“Woodbine does derive and does rely on the casino ultimately for a good chunk of our revenue. We’re tied to the casinos by virtue of our lease,” Lawson said. “It was my goal to completely remove ourselves from the government funding program and I think that was a realistic goal. It’s still a goal, but the fact that the casinos are going to have a complete dry period, following by a slow period for the foreseeable future, definitely has an impact on Woodbine Entertainment revenue and that income and, accordingly, it’s going to take Woodbine Entertainment a lengthier period to get back on its feet on this goal of being self-sustaining.
“I don’t know and I don’t want to send off alarm bells in the industry… but Woodbine Entertainment will realize a significant drop in its income in 2021. We’re fine for 2020 and have planned accordingly, but we’re going to have to adjust our business accordingly going forward based on the fact that we’ve got lower income from the casinos for the foreseeable future, which I expect will affect us in 2021 and 2022.”
BETTING $4-5 MILLION A CARD?
With Mohawk being the first large North American harness track to re-open, Lawson said it could be a great opportunity both for driving handle and exposure.
“I see this as a huge opportunity on the harness racing side,” Lawson said. “I think that we’re going to be the focus of the harness world and I’m hoping that we see nights of four or five million dollars on the harness racing side.
“The caveat of all of that, of course, is that we won’t have wagers at the track, we won’t wagers at our Champions lounges, of which there are over 60 in the province. We won’t have wagers at the other racetracks, which are also served. So we’re missing that whole distribution network for wagering. We need to – and we’ve certainly been planning it for weeks – get as many people converted to using HPI as possible and that’s one of our challenges.”
RACING ON A MAJOR SPORTS NETWORK?
Lawson also believes horse racing has a strong chance to get on prime time cable television in Canada with sports networks such as TSN looking for live sporting events to broadcast while most sports are still idle.
“We already have a relationship with TSN and we’re working through with them on what it can look like and we’re hoping in the next week or so that we’ll have some good news on a product on TSN,” Lawson said.
“I think it’s an opportunity to showcase both thoroughbreds and standardbred racing on a network and our mindset about it is going to be less about the wager and more about exposing people and showing them the fun and the people in horse racing.”
It’s another potential positive in challenging times, but Lawson said it won’t immediately help the thousands of WEG employees that are laid off and will remain so in the short term.
Though racing will return, Lawson stressed it is being done with as few employees as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The fact racing will be conducted without spectators means grandstand staff, including pari-mutuel workers, food and beverage staff, custodians, security personnel, etc., won’t be needed back, yet.
“I feel for those people and we’re doing our best to support them through the government programs and with benefits, but it’s a difficult time for all of those people…It’s not a good situation,” Lawson said. “We have a large food-and-beverage operation… much like the restaurant business and the catering businesses. A good analogy would be with the banquet business. You just cannot envision in the next few months that we’re going to be hosting corporate parties or large gatherings of people. In addition to that group, we’ve got a lot of people in group sales, we’ve got a lot of people in hospitality… it goes on and on and on. It’s not just food and beverage – it’s guest services, mutuel tellers, security…. It impacts everything we do. It’s very difficult to ramp up when you’re closed to spectators. Even if we get permission to open, I’m not so sure that people are going to be rushing back into restaurants. I don’t want to be dramatic here, but do we ever go back to a buffet at Mohawk?”
Lawson said an abundance of caution is designed to show the province that horse racing deserves the faith placed in it to re-open in phase one.
“We’ve followed the lead of the provincial government and I think the fact that we’ve been singing from the same song sheet as the Premier has given us credibility in terms of how we’ve shown leadership,” Lawson said.
“I spent a lot of my time working with OLG (Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation) and indirectly with Ministry of Finance, building the case as to why racing could resume. Racing, as you know in this province, isn’t really on everyone’s radar politically, but it should be because of all the people (employed by it), but you feel like you have to build the case every time,” Lawson said.
It has made for a long six weeks for Lawson and others at WEG.
“I can remember like it was yesterday, trying to decide how long to keep going at Mohawk on the Monday without spectators and then another try on the Thursday and then things just started to cave in on us with the regulators not wanting to show up at the track,” Lawson said. “It’s been crisis management for a couple of months. For me, every morning it’s like, ‘Wow, what’s going to hit today?’ This week it was the herpes virus in the backstretch at Woodbine. Then, various things with government and it’s just been pretty constant.
“It’s been two steps forward, one step back, every step along the way.”
THE NEW REALITY
He said racing will be drastically different when it does return and he implores the industry to follow the new rules.
“At this stage, WEG protocols, which have been submitted and approved by the AGCO (Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario) as the basis for allowing us to proceed with training and racing at both of our racetracks, only allows essential personnel to be present. Those personnel will be strictly accounted for and screened. We are otherwise not allowing people, including our own employees, onto our property including the grandstand areas except on the same basis. There are many factors upon which we have prudently arrived at this decision and we do not expect this to change in the short term. At the same time we completely appreciate and recognize the support of our horse racing community and it will continue to be top of mind for us as circumstances change and allow us to adjust our policies. Thank you for your patience and understanding.”
That means people won’t be allowed to watch workouts or qualifiers on site, but Woodbine is looking into broadcasting those workouts and qualifiers.
“We’re saying, ‘Everyone take a deep breath.’ We’re fortunate to be racing… What we’re really trying to do is control this virus and we’re a long way from being in the clear on that.”