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Woodbine CEO preaches patience, innovation during pandemic

With 1,100 horses on the backstretch and a province that is in a state of emergency until May 12, pressure continues to mount on the horse racing industry shuttered by the Covid-19 pandemic in suburban Toronto.

Woodbine Entertainment Group CEO Jim Lawson has faced his share of tough opponents as a former hockey player drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the late 1970s. He’s faced steep financial challenges as the former commissioner of the Canadian Football League where he now serves as the chair of the Board of Governors.

Today he faces perhaps the most difficult crisis of his career that has spanned guiding companies, professional leagues and the sport of kings over the past 40 years since graduating from Brown University.

On March 23, Woodbine Entertainment announced that it was postponing the start of the 2020 Thoroughbred meet, which was scheduled to open Saturday. The decision was made to follow the Government of Ontario’s orders to close all nonessential businesses to help stop the spread of Covid-19.

“Our management team and our board, we felt we had to do the right thing,” said Lawson during an hourlong Q&A with horsemen and media Wednesday. “When you can look in the mirror and say that lives are more important than livelihoods, you know you’ve made the right decision. That’s the way we’ve felt as a corporate citizen.”

South of the border in the United States, racetracks in Arkansas, Florida, Nebraska and Oklahoma are still running spectator-free, yet in suburban Toronto the thoroughbred track at Woodbine and the standardbred track at Mohawk sit idle due to the government-imposed shutdown.

Record handle has resulted in places like Fonner Park and Will Rogers Downs as the only betting game in town on live action sports. Weekend telecasts of racing on Fox Sports and NBCSN have boosted one of a handful of live sports still operating. Lawson can only imagine the revenue that would open up to Woodbine if racing were not subjected to the restrictions.

“As people have seen in the United States, the good news is horse racing is one of the few sports and entertainment properties that can go on and can operate without spectators,” said Lawson.

He also said horse racing can get a jump on other professional sports when restrictions lighten down the road. “It is an advantage in turns of hopefully getting started before other sports; we are not gate driven. We will run our races when we are allowed to and they will be run without spectators for the foreseeable future.”

The Queen’s Plate, the oldest continuously run race in North America, was postponed from its June 27 date and will likely be run later in the year once a racing schedule can be sorted out.

“Once we postponed the start of our season, it likely meant that the Queen’s Plate would also be postponed, as certain races are required leading up to it, so the 3-year-old horses competing are ready for the longer distance," Lawson said. "As soon as we receive clarity on when the season will start, we will create a new stakes schedule and finalize a new date for the Queen’s Plate."

The former Ivy Leaguer has been innovative in the past, utilizing the world-class turf course to run races clockwise several years ago and utilizing a festival concept to Plate weekend over the past few meetings to drive new customers and attendance at Woodbine.

While the pandemic has halted racing, his staff behind the scenes is working on technology to introduce new types of wagering on horse racing.

“One of the things we are doing is we continue with our innovation and technology projects. A mobile app we have developed named Dark Horse, we think that is going to help this industry in Ontario a lot, in terms of what it will do for being able to wager on a mobile app, using artificial intelligence,” said Lawson. “It may attract a new user to this and has more of a fixed odds feel to it. If it gets launched in May or June I’m very excited for it.”

Figuring out the new normal at the racetrack is one of the biggest challenges Woodbine will face. Lawson has been in contact with other tracks around the world so that proper protocols can be established once racing resumes.

“We are in contact and getting some advice from Hong Kong, where they are certainly have procedures in place to help them,” Lawson said. “We are looking at those in terms of how our jockeys room should be handled, the cleaning of equipment, race halters, saddles and the requirements that we put in place are sanitized and we are learning from the experiences of the other tracks.”

“There is a lot to learn from what other people are doing, and they are doing a good job of it and I expect we’ll be able to benefit from it.”

Lawson and the horseman hope that the resumption of racing is sooner rather than later once the provincial government gives the all clear sign. Lawson hinted if all goes well June or July could be a reality for restarting racing on the track.

“We’re going to work as hard and steadfastly as we can, ensuring the safety of our horsepeople first, including the safety of the horses, as they need time to get ready,” said Lawson. “There’s a lot to do to get racing ready, we’ll ramp up as quickly as we can.”

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

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