Lawson: Ontario’s Ministry of Health has failed horse racing

Lawson: Ontario’s Ministry of Health has failed horse racing

May 21, 2021

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Despite the news that horse racing will return to Ontario on June 14, the CEO of the Woodbine Entertainment Group is still “highly frustrated” the sport has not been allowed to resume this Saturday along with golf, tennis, soccer and other outdoor sports.

by Dave Briggs

For Jim Lawson, news that Ontario will allow horse racing to resume as of June 14 is just one tiny edible slice in an otherwise rancid pie.

“We’ll accept June 14th, because we have to, and get on with life,” the CEO of the Woodbine Entertainment Group said minutes before premier Doug Ford announced horse racing would be among activities allowed to resume IF 60 per cent of adults in Ontario have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by that date. Currently, 58.5 per cent of the adult population have received a first dose as of Thursday (May 20), but the province is waiting two weeks after hitting the 60 per cent target in order to monitor the vaccine outcome.

Lawson said horse racing should have been among the outdoor activities such as tennis, golf, soccer and basketball that are permitted to resume as of this Saturday (May 22).

“The result defies logic,” Lawson said. “It absolutely defies logic.”

“I’m highly frustrated that the Ministry of Health did not take into account that we’re outdoors, that we’re masked, and that we’re distanced – all of the things that they say that their science is telling them to reduce the risk of COVID transmission to a miniscule amount.

“We have all those factors and, not only that, but we have a great amount of our participants vaccinated. Also, there’s our safety record. It’s no coincidence that we’ve had a perfect safety record on the standardbred side and it’s for the reasons I just said – we’ve been masked, we’ve been distanced, we’ve been outside, we’ve done the testing and we’ve monitored it. These are all the things that are in place, that aren’t in place with golf and with tennis.

“I think it’s a good thing that people can get outside and get exercise, for mental health and so on. For all of us, that’s not the issue here. The Ministry of Health has failed to appreciate our factors, which I’ve gone over, as well as the mental health across a very, very large industry.

“This is not an acceptable approach by the government and it shows, I think, a lack of the ability to understand a very large industry and the safety record and all the factors that I said.”

Lawson said he was “highly frustrated” with the Ministry of Health’s classification of racing, without knowing for sure exactly how the Ministry has classified it.

“We just do not have a group at the Ministry of Health that has taken the time to listen and understand. I wish I could give you an answer for how they characterize racing. Do they think of it as a gambling industry or a casino industry? I wish I could give you an answer, but I don’t even know that.”

Lawson said he biggest concern has been the “short-term suffering” of those in the horse racing industry.

“People are hurting economically and it’s hard to measure what impact it’s going to have on the livestock and people being able to keep their head about water. They rely on the purses to keep going,” he said. “The biggest thing is (delaying reopening until June 14) extends this suffering over a longer period than is necessary, so that’s the first thing that comes to mind.”

WEG has said it will resume standardbred racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park on June 14 and start its thoroughbred season at Woodbine Racetrack on June 18.

“I’m more worried on the thoroughbred side that we just may not be able to get the people to ship to Woodbine now,” Lawson said. “That concerns me greatly because the impact of that — and it’s hard to measure — is reduced wagering across the board and that impacts the Breeders Rewards for both breeds and the Woodbine thoroughbreds are a big driver of that. How many people are going to wait another three weeks because they get going?

“It could be damaging. I don’t want to paint a really bleak picture, but I’m definitely concerned. I know people are suffering and this is not fair to them, because it’s suffering that is unnecessary.

“I made that point to the premier’s office today, you know, enough is enough. Between the Minister of Sport and the premier’s office, we need a person that understands this file. This is too big of an industry for the Minister of Sport and other ministries in the premier’s office, for us not to be in a position to speak to someone who understands this industry. We don’t have the comfort that anyone in government really understands this industry and that’s frustrating.”

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