Pepsi NA Cup free for all

Behind Woodbine Mohawk Park’s decision to bring back free admission for Pepsi North America Cup Night.

by Melissa Keith

There were actually four eliminations for the $1 million 2024 Pepsi North America Cup at Woodbine Mohawk Park.

Captains Quarters (p, 3, 1:49.1s; $430,206), Funtime Bayama (p, 3, 1:49.1s; $303,108), and Nijinsky (p, 3, 1:49.0s; $164,890) won the first three on Saturday (June 8).

The fourth is the elimination of the $10 admission cost for fans and bettors visiting the Campbellville, ON track for this Saturday night’s (June 15) stakes-studded card.

In 2022, Woodbine Mohawk Park introduced a $10 admission fee for Pepsi North America Cup Night. The Ontario Jockey Club, now Woodbine Entertainment, had eliminated regular paid admission at its tracks in 1998, the same year Mohawk was enlarged to its current seven-eighth’s mile configuration.

Bringing back an admission price, however small, was sure to generate feedback from customers.

Mark McKelvie, senior manager of communications for Woodbine Entertainment, spoke with HRU in June 2022 about the decision to implement paid admission for that year’s Pepsi North America Cup card.

There was no guarantee that paid admission would become a regular part of the big night, although the $10 fee remained in place for the 2023 edition.

On May 31, McKelvie circulated a media release announcing that admission would again be free for this year’s Pepsi North America Cup card.

Lisa Joy Rogers regularly takes in live racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park. She watches from the grandstand with her husband, Bill, and often other friends and family. Lisa and Bill have been significantly involved in both standardbred ownership and the wagering side of the game.

Lisa told HRU that she and Bill had attended recent North America Cups despite opposing the concept of paid admission, because they were already exempt from it.

“We have been to the last two, but the $10 charge has never affected us because Bill is a VIP player, so it’s always been waived,” Lisa said. “However, if we were forced to pay the $10 charge, we would not go, based on principle. For our situation, for the amount of money we spend in that facility, dining, betting, and owning, being forced to pay another $10 would be disrespectful. As it is to any player that supports their business on the regular race night.”

Lisa added that she supported the decision to eliminate the entrance fee. She said that comparisons to major thoroughbred stakes cards are not relevant to the marketing of harness racing, which needs its own template.

For instance, “paying for a reserved seat for the night inside the building is acceptable, as opposed to a cover charge to get into the building,” she said.

“Regular players should not be forced to pay for that night, and you should never limit the availability to any potential new bettors or fans. That’s our night to shine. They should show everyone what our Mohawk is all about.”

Sean Patrick Nolan is a popular public handicapper of thoroughbred and harness racing, including Woodbine Mohawk Park. He said he expects to pay admission to take in major stakes races at any track, and had already done so at Saratoga Race Course when contacted for this article.

“For the Belmont Stakes today [Saturday, June 8] it is $50 and that’s the race I’m here to see.”

Nolan said the $10 admission for Mohawk’s North America Cup card didn’t bother him.

“No, not at all,” he said. “I think that’s very fair for a night such as that.”

As a bettor and handicapper who appreciates both breeds, Nolan said the difference in attitudes toward paid admission reflect the greater prominence of thoroughbreds over standardbreds in the public imagination today.

“They do differ, because the coverage is much greater for the thoroughbreds, thus the demand is greater,” he said. “People pay $500 for the Breeders’ Cup [admission].”

Bill McLinchey is vice-president of standardbred racing for Woodbine Entertainment. He told HRU that his team removed the admission fee in order to make on-track attendance a more inviting prospect for everyone this Saturday night.

“Early in the planning stages for this year’s Pepsi North America Cup night we established a clear objective to get as many people to take in the event live as possible, and eliminating the admission fee seemed like that would likely help us accomplish that goal,” he said.

The admission charge did serve its purpose, said McLinchey.

“The main purpose of the admission fee was to establish value on the event, as it’s a great opportunity for guests to see the best horses, drivers and trainers in North America compete in some of the biggest races of their careers,” he said.

There was market research value to the now-discontinued admission fee, as well.

“It also had the further benefit of a way to understand how many patrons were attending the event, which is critical information in planning for future events,” McLinchey said. “It was never intended to be an incremental revenue stream. This year, to help track attendance, we are installing temporary turnstiles to accomplish this.”

Reflective of the differing opinions shared by Sean Patrick Nolan (pro-admission charge) and Lisa Joy Rogers (anti-admission charge), Woodbine’s VP of standardbred racing said he had heard both sides.

“The decision to charge admission came with both positive and negative feedback,” he said. “One thing that was refreshing to hear was from some horsepeople that said if we don’t put a value on our biggest racing event of the year, how do we expect anyone else to? That said, we also see an upside to not charge an admission to maximize on-site attendance to provide access to a great event with some of the best standardbred racing in the world.”

It’s not the $10 but the change from previously-free admission that generated discussion about the value of attending Pepsi North America Cup Night at the track.

“I think when an event has charged an admission fee all along it is more accepted by the fans, but when a fee is added to what has been traditionally a free event it makes it more difficult,” said McLinchey. “With the great card of racing and the event we have planned, I am confident we could have charged an admission fee again this year for Pepsi North America Cup Night and had an excellent crowd, but by offering no admission, hopefully it will give us that little nudge we need to increase our crowd on-site.”

Post time is 6:30 p.m. Saturday night, with admission and parking free for this year’s Pepsi North America Cup.