by Victoria M. Howard
Born in St. Thomas, ON, Jessica Buckley never imagined one day she would be the senior vice-president of standardbred and thoroughbred racing for Canada’s largest horse racing company — the Woodbine Entertainment Group.
“I have had the great luck of making a career in racing. After taking a summer job at Woodbine Entertainment, following graduation from university, I became fascinated with the complexities of the racing business.
“Although it was not my immediate plan, opportunities for innovation were arising with technology. After being part of the team that launched HPI bet (HorsePlayer Interactive) and HPI TV, I left Woodbine after eight years to pursue an opportunity in California with Magna Entertainment (now The Stronach Group) where I helped launch Xpress Bet and Horse Racing TV (now TVG2).
“After working with Magna for 9 years, I returned to Canada and to Woodbine where I began working with the team on the property development in the role of Government Relations and Community Relations.
“During that time the Woodbine board made the decision to move harness racing year round to Woodbine Mohawk Park.
“In 2017, when I became president of Mohawk Park, I worked with a team to make this special property and track a year-round destination for racing and entertainment.
“In 2020, my role shifted to senior vice-president of standardbred and thoroughbred racing — now dividing my time between the two breeds,” said Buckley.
Jessica’s love for horses started with her mother, Mary Anderson, who was a pony clubber in London, ON.
“My mother kept her pony, Bay Lady, in a field next to cottages in Orchard Beach. In the bliss of the 1950s, when she was in her early teens on summer vacation, she met my dad, Bob, in nearby Port Stanley.
“She jumped her pony over the hedges between the cottages and swam with Bay Lady at Little Beach on the shores of Lake Erie.
“My father innately loved horses and wanted to be around them so together in their early 20s they bought their first thoroughbred broodmare and set out to become breeders. It was a shared passion.
“They were the first generation of horsepeople in each of their families and successfully operated a thoroughbred breeding farm for many years in St. Thomas, Ontario.
“Decades later, my brother, David Anderson, piqued my dad’s interest in standardbreds. It was a mind leap at the time, but David convinced my dad there was a great value in the business. He acted as bloodstock agent and soon found some incredible fillies at the sales and they went on to have harness racing success together.”
It’s no surprise Buckley has been so successful in her position, for she is determined that Woodbine become the #1 harness racetrack in North America. This includes challenging every season to come up with innovations in racing and new ways to do things.
“If our tests in innovation do not work out, we don’t think of it as a complete failure — we learn and adjust. Staying focused on integrity in racing is of utmost importance for our players and horse people.
“Racing is an industry with much tradition, but we must continue to make changes to evolve over time and continue to appeal to the new generation of fans and the next generation of horsepeople.”
What are some future plans for Woodbine Mohawk Park?
“Future plans include year two of the Mohawk Million in 2021, along with our stakes program —one of the best in North America.
“We have invested over $16 million in the track and facilities over the past three years. We will continue to invest in our wagering infrastructure, including Dark Horse and HPI bet.com, which have been a massive part of our shift to digital wagering during COVID-19.
“This shift has accelerated the penetration of online wagering and allows for further investment in the Dark Horse app, built for the next generation sports wagering fan.”
Racing horses at Woodbine has become more popular for trainer/owners, despite the winters that can be quite brutal.
“Winter racing is not for the faint of heart. I am amazed at the resilience of the horsepeople on cold nights. We have an incredible track surface crew that work very hard to keep the track race ready: snow, sleet or warmer winter days.
“The new paddock extension and renovations to winterize the race paddock have made the experience much more comfortable during the winter months.
“Hosting a year-round circuit creates a great opportunity for people to make a living here in Ontario.”
As far as racing in 2021, Buckley said,“We are focusing on continuing the positive momentum with the wagering pools, confidence in our product with large fields, integrity in racing and world class standardbreds.
“I’m happy to see that people are still investing in horses at the fall sales. I think there will be some racing jurisdictions that may suffer with uncertainty, but in Ontario, we plan to continue strong into the new year and move ahead with great opportunities for all.”