by Melissa Keith
Mohawk Racetrack, now Woodbine Mohawk Park, opened on April 26, 1963, to a crowd of 4,448 patrons. For perspective: the newborn racetrack’s parking lot could accommodate 3,000 vehicles. April 18, 1970, a record 11,470 fans and bettors showed up for a leg of the inaugural World Driving Championship, with charismatic Hervé Filion representing Canada.
According to the USTA Trotting and Pacing Guide, the Campbellville landmark reached its current attendance record on Sept. 22, 1984, when 14,606 spectators and bettors packed the grandstand and apron. Those years are now remembered for peak attendance figures unlikely attainable in the online wagering era, which has overlapped with a steady downturn of mainstream interest in the sport: Pompano Park played host to a record 18,451 patrons on December 27, 1980; The Meadowlands welcomed 52,974 racegoers on June 11, 1982; Cal-Expo drew attendance of 36,943 on July 4, 1982.
Keeping the industry’s on-track heyday in mind, a small rumble could be detected when Woodbine Mohawk Park announced a $10 admission fee for its 2022 Pepsi North America Cup card.
“I think it’s a case of: If we don’t value our own product, why would somebody who’s not already a fan of this industry put much value on it?” asked Mark McKelvie, rhetorically.
A couple of days after Mohawk’s premier race for 3-year-old pacers, Woodbine Entertainment’s communications manager explained the decision to bring back admission, currently a rarity in harness racing: “You can’t go anywhere nowadays without spending money, it seems, and you’d love to provide anybody with free entertainment, but we certainly have to put some value on our product. That’s how I look at it.”
Handle, rather than attendance, has become the contemporary gauge of how well a live card is received. The 39th Pepsi North America Cup exceeded Mohawk’s previous all-time record ($5.6 million (Cdn), set in 2020), raising the bar to a new event/track record handle of $6,317,624.47. An impressive $217,553.20 of that amount was wagered on-track, a 26 per cent increase over the 2020 North America Cup on-track handle.
Attendance nonetheless reveals different information about the overall health of the sport, and contemporary customers. That data has been harder to gather “ever since we stopped tracking attendance on a day-to-day basis,” said McKelvie.
Even though an electronic counter once captured the number of people filtering into the grandstand, a mathematical formula had to be used to average and subtract the percentage of customers who left the building and then returned during the card, as well as people dropping in without staying to wager.
With North American harness tracks regularly offering free admission, perhaps some perspective has been lost.
“You consider that if you’re going to the movies, you’re spending over $20 just to see your movie,” McKelvie told HRU. “People don’t bat an eye at that. That’s what they’re accustomed to doing. I think with racing, at least around these parts, we got away from charging admission for so long that it came almost like a bit of a shock to everybody when we brought it back a few years ago. But I think for $10, which is the price we’re charging at the door, you get to come in and experience the best racing that we can offer, the best card of the year. Then add in all the other things that go on, on a big event night, such as your food trucks, your [live] music, your entertainment, giveaways… I think for $10, that’s a good bang for your buck.”
Souvenir programs were being sold for $5, but the less expensive self-serve option remained available – which naturally led to conversation about the customers looking for the latter option. Should die-hards who bet Mohawk year-round be asked to pony up $10 for the privilege of wagering on-track?
“I’ve heard that [question] as well,” McKelvie said. “The thing that I think we have to keep in mind is that we’re trying to grow the industry… All the extras don’t necessarily target the gamblers. I’m sure the hardcore horseplayer probably couldn’t care less if we’ve got food trucks and a band and we’re giving away [souvenir] rally towels. That stuff’s not what they’re there for, I understand that.”
(Bringing back paid admission was a Woodbine Entertainment Group decision, not attributable to any one person, he added.)
One aspect of charging admission worked to the benefit of Mohawk regulars, said McKelvie. “We have our racebook area at Woodbine Mohawk Park and it has carrels. We actually charge for those carrels on a night like that,” he said. “I can understand a horseplayer thinking, ‘This is my usual seat, on a nightly basis. Over 200 nights a year I’m here, and I sit here for free and I watch the races.’ On those nights before we started charging admission several years ago, you would have mass crowds come in, and you would see somebody who’s probably never been to the track before taking up those [carrels]… We gave all of our regular horseplayers an opportunity to reserve their [carrel] seats well in advance. If they reserved their seat, it covered their admission.” (The cost was $10/carrel.)
By Wednesday (June 22), the numbers were in: over 4,000 patrons attended Mohawk on June 18, for racing and dining. (Casino patrons were not included in the count.)
“Now that we have kind of a new benchmark, we can build up from that and continue to push forward in the coming years,” McKelvie said. “We haven’t had a North America Cup in June since 2019. If you think about it, we’ve had over a decade now of the race being at Woodbine Mohawk Park, so I think it’s become one of those events that people in the area always knew was coming up around mid-June, toward the end of the school year, to kick off summer.”
No record of official attendance exists for the 2008 North America Cup, which he suspected held the unofficial modern-day record, courtesy of superstar Somebeachsomewhere. The 2022 edition lacked a horse of that stature going into the race, but in his view, “this was the race that was going to essentially create the star,” as Pebble Beach emerged the champion.
Worth the price of admission?
“I understand that some of those within the industry are going to be a little bit sensitive to it, because we want to get as many people in the doors as possible,” said McKelvie. “But I think for those that are event-seekers – just like a lot of people we see in the crowd on North America Cup night – they’re people just looking for an event. They’re looking for a party. They’re looking for something a little different, a night out. Could they tell you what horses are on the track? That’s our job once they’re in the building, to educate them and hope that they get a program. Hopefully the experience we give them will make them want to come back.”
“When you see all the lights and the show that’s going on, on a night like that, I don’t think anybody would be too upset about having to give $10 at the door to have a great night out.”