Sports betting synergy

Woodbine partners with bet365 to offer betting on horse racing for the first time via a legal Ontario sportsbook app.

by Melissa Keith

Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson is stepping away from that position this fall, but not without having accomplished one of his major goals: Bringing horse racing to a legal Canadian sports wagering platform. By Sunday (Aug. 20), bet365 will include a “horse racing” option on its menu of sports available to Canadian customers. Lawson said he couldn’t be happier.

“The first thing that comes to mind is a sense of accomplishment,” Lawson said. “It was a big team effort. I think I drove them all crazy because I pushed so hard. In particular, in the last two months I’ve been pushing for the deadline of Aug. 20, and really, a deadline of Aug. 1st. It just slipped and slipped, mostly for technological reasons. I think they’re still working out some things.”

He wanted to ensure Woodbine’s presence on a Canadian online sportsbook ahead of the 2023 King’s Plate, the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown for thoroughbreds. The race is this Sunday at Woodbine Racetrack. It and other racing product currently carried on HPI will become available this week via bet365. That includes harness racing.

Last March, Lawson spoke out about racing being excluded from the newly-legalized terrain of Canadian sports betting. When single-game wagering became available via Canadian sportsbooks on April 4, 2022, thoroughbred and standardbred racing did not. With a background in professional sports (hockey and Canadian football), Lawson said at the time that he considered the delay frustrating and nonsensical.

He was visibly relieved and happy Thursday.

“I expect [availability] is going to be turned on this weekend,” Lawson said. “It’s just a complicated process. For bet365 in particular to meet all of the regulatory compliance, it had to be that even though it’s on an iGO [iGaming Ontario]-regulated and approved site, it really had to be clear that this was pari-mutuel and a Woodbine product, and a Canadian pari-mutuel regulated product. There’s just a lot that goes into ensuring that the public knows that and that the regulators can regulate and audit it.”

The racetrack CEO said it took a year to complete the platform that allowed the existing tote system to interface with bet365 in a way he called “seamless to the customer.” This means bet365 players will not need to register for a Horseplayer Interactive (HPIBet) account with Woodbine in advance of placing their bets on races. He added that transactions had to be easily separable and auditable for both federal and provincial regulators.

“This is under the management and control of Woodbine, and under the regulatory regime of the CPMA [Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency], so it’s a very delicate minefield to get through, not just technologically, but from a legal and compliance perspective,” he said.

Bet365 was a natural choice to make the project happen.

“We had begun discussions with a number of international sports betting operators, even prior to this sports betting legislation,” Lawson said. “We didn’t know how it was going to come about… Many of the majors, including bet365, their roots were in horse racing. Bet365 essentially was an off-track betting shop in the United Kingdom… At their heart and at their roots, bet365 is a horse racing company, and there are a number that fall into that category.”

It was the company’s commitment to the sport and marketing in Ontario that helped seal the deal with Woodbine Entertainment.

“We like the brand, we like the worldwide brand, and we like the fact that they understood and appreciated, a.k.a. ‘liked’ horse racing, so it just seemed like the perfect fit,” Lawson said. “Given their size and their scope, they are technologically advanced… and were up to the task of integrating our system in a manner that would comply with the regulatory environment in Canada. They checked every box.”

Bet365 wagers on racing don’t go through HPI, he noted.

“They are routed directly into our tote system,” Lawson said. “Our tote system sits at the back end of all of this… Yes, there’s a commission to be shared or paid to bet365. However, our projections are that we are going to add a substantial amount of new customers [i.e., knowledgeable sports bettors, particularly in their 20s-30s], horse racing fans, and new revenue… At the end of the day, it adds to the home market wagering, which is good for the standardbred and thoroughbred breeders in the province.”

Timely partnering with a sports betting operator was essential for the long-range health of horse/harness racing, according to Lawson.

“As these mega-companies grow in Ontario and across Canada, they are marketing behemoths and they are just going to further eat into the available sports wagering dollar,” he said. “To not take this step would have been devastating [to the national and provincial horse/harness racing handle]… I only know the Ontario numbers are projected to grow into $10 billion in the next five years. For us not to be part of that wave would be hugely problematic to our wagering.”

The deal with bet365 is non-exclusive.

“To be clear, we are going to add new sports betting operators in the coming months,” he said. “It’s going to be all of the majors; almost all of them, we know are interested. I can say we’ve already been approached… We need to get this launched, but we’re ready to go.”

Lawson is moving into the position of executive chair at Woodbine Entertainment as new CEO Michael Copeland takes the lines this fall. While scaling back his days at the office, he said he will remain involved in this and other projects and operations.

What about the possibility of physical sportsbooks, such as the FanDuel outlet located inside The Meadowlands’ grandstand in New Jersey?

“I would say it is extremely likely, and now even more likely, as a result of yesterday’s development,” he said. “I don’t know that the government is yet prepared to put a sportsbook into an operation like WEGZ [Stadium Bar OTB in Concord, ON], however we have every expectation that we will have a retail sportsbook focused on horse racing, operated by Woodbine Entertainment, at the Woodbine Racetrack. Now, we will have to partner, because we are not a licensed sports betting operator, nor do we intend to become a licensed sports betting operator.”

He said that, ideally, bettors at future racing-themed sportsbook locations “will still have their sports betting app in their hands [on their phone], so they don’t necessarily have to open up an HPI account or bring cash to bet on horse racing when they move over to the retail sportsbook at Woodbine or Mohawk… This makes more sense than ever now, with this digital capability… That’s a discussion for another day, whether we can get that into WEGZ and Greenwood [OTB in Toronto’s Beaches neighborhood], which are our two largest off-track wagering operations, and beyond that, whether the government is prepared to license that… I’m more confident that it’s going to happen at Woodbine first and then the next step would be Mohawk.”

The timing of the bet365 partnership launch couldn’t be better for the standardbred stakes season, in Lawson’s view.

“I think it’s great for harness racing,” he said. “I say this with respect: You have this whole audience with these young sports bettors who don’t know very much about horse racing. You start at that foundation. What they do know about horse racing is the Kentucky Derby; they might know there’s a U.S. Triple Crown; I’m not even sure they’d know there’s a Canadian Triple Crown, but they know a little bit about… thoroughbreds.

“We have a whole program that we’re building, our marketing department, to educate the sports betting customer and brand a sports wagering brand dedicated to horse racing… I’m hoping and expecting that what you’re going to see is this huge, huge number of customers who think horse racing is the Kentucky Derby [get educated] on the North America Cup, the Mohawk Million, the Wellwood, the Peaceful Way, the Canadian Trotting Classic… I think you’re going to see a whole new demographic say, ‘Ohhhh, harness racing! I’ve heard about that!’ Even the Canadian thoroughbred product: ‘Ohhh, I didn’t know Canada had a Triple Crown!’ I think this is awesome for horse racing, but I think this is also going to really boost awareness about standardbred racing.”

Not just this weekend, but 365 days a year.