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Woodbine: To the Standardbred Racing Community

Published: July 12, 2017 4:56 pm ET

Last Comment: July 19, 2017 8:57 am ET | 26 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

July 12, 2017
Standardbred Racing Community
Update on Initiatives and Response to RG Burgess QC

As the Chairman of the Woodbine Entertainment Group (“WEG”) Board of Directors, Chief Executive Officer, Committee Chairman of the Standardbred Racing Committee and full membership of that Committee, we are responding to the letter of R G Burgess, QC in respect of Standardbred racing at WEG.

As an initial matter, we don't make decisions of any type which turn on preferring or advantaging Standardbred or Thoroughbred racing against each other. Our decisions are made with reference to the best interests of WEG which we interpret as allowing the company to meet its core mandate of supporting horseracing and ensuring that we have the strongest possible racing programs and businesses for both breeds. It is that simple and there is no division in our Board (which as an aside, as currently constituted owns more and has a greater financial interest in racing Standardbreds than Thoroughbreds) or management on that issue. Our Board also benefits from the business experience of a diverse group of directors who aren't currently owners of racing horses but who have outstanding credentials in finance, marketing, government relations and business growth.

Our decision on moving to year round Standardbred operations at Mohawk was made after two years of careful consideration and with a very significant financial and management resources commitment to Mohawk being a world class Standardbred operation. In addition but of great significance, we believe that our commitment to Mohawk greatly enhances the prospects for the best possible expansion of gaming, introduction of other entertainment offerings at Mohawk and exciting development of the full Mohawk Park site. The site will be branded Woodbine at Mohawk Park in May 2018 to capture the value of the Woodbine brand internationally, which is where we expect the most wagering growth in the future.

WEG already has the largest annual handle on Standardbred racing; our objective is to further improve those results. WEG already has the most comprehensive and financially accessible stakes program in Standardbred racing; our objective is to maintain and further enhance it.

We have demonstrated through the Pepsi North America Cup and our other signature racing events that Mohawk is an outstanding venue for great crowds, great wagering and great entertainment. It will be that much better with an expanded dining room and the addition of VIP suites and other modern amenities. In fact, following the recent running the NA Cup a prominent US Standardbred owner, who is also a member of the Hambletonian Society stated that “I believe the performance of the WEG team sets a high standard that ought to be the goal of any racetrack that intends to host a major event in the future”. This level of customer and horsemen satisfaction has not been possible at Woodbine for Standardbred racing due to the inherent difficulties of running the races at a facility that was not built to operate as a Standardbred facility.

With the greatest respect to Mr. Burgess, most of his concerns are simply outdated or not factual. Except for big events and weekends with good weather, large live attendance is a difficult objective. By a huge margin, most wagering is done remotely, more than 85% of handle on average is bet off-track. No one disputes that the on-track experience for Standardbred racing is better at Mohawk. The death of racing in Montréal and the New York City suburbs had nothing to do with alternating venues. Woodbine Thoroughbreds operate without alternating venues and we have grown the handle significantly each year. The decision to move to Mohawk is to improve and invest more in our Standardbred business; the opportunity to construct a second turf course at Woodbine is a byproduct of the first decision.

Addressing one of Mr. Burgess’s chief criticisms there is no debate that winter racing in Ontario has its challenges. However, the majority of our winter cancellations are caused by transportation issues (not racetrack weather) and at Mohawk we fully expect both less cancellations and more flexibility in adjusting races and schedules in the event of cancellation. There is no doubt that the Milton area is the heart of the Standardbred industry in the Province –it is where our horsemen live and work.

The other history cited by Mr Burgess refers to a different era when racing had a monopoly on legal gaming and our purses were derived exclusively from wagering revenues.

Following the cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks program by the Province, WEG stepped up and committed our resources to Standardbred racing in Ontario by helping create and operate the Standardbred Alliance since 2014. This Alliance includes all three levels of tracks (grassroots, signature and premier) and has greatly benefitted the smaller member tracks in Ontario by creating efficiencies in racetrack operating costs.

WEG incurs significant operational and other costs each year to support the members of the Alliance on matters such as:

  • Horse Racing support including purse payment administration, race datescheduling, TCO2 testing and race date applications

  • Pari-mutuel wagering support including tote fees, decoder rentals, track settlements, import and export contracting

  • Marketing support services and a robust players rewards program

Members of the Standardbred Alliance and WEG, pool pari-mutuel wagering revenues and share the proceeds amongst the member tracks to ensure each member track is sustainable. WEG provides open and transparent reporting of all wagering activities and purse distributions to each member of the Alliance, Ontario Racing, OLG, AGCO and the Horsemen’s association on a predetermined reporting basis and on request.

We have voluntarily contributed nearly $8M in Horse Improvement Plan proceeds since the inception of the Alliance to ensure breeder incentives are retained at levels that make a difference to the Standardbred breeding sector in the Province. This is over and above the $25M annually, which comes directly from the wagering on WEG races.

Additionally, WEG funds and guarantees minimum purse levels for live racing participants at each of the Standardbred Alliance tracks. WEG has funded in excess of $30M to Alliance members since its formation in April 2014. WEG is committed to continuing this funding and guarantee and has no intention of reducing it.

With increasing competition from entertainment options across Ontario and globally, we have continued to grow the handle and in some instances break wagering records on our biggest events. Recently the Pepsi North America Cup handled $4.1M, one of our top results for a Standardbred card and The Queen’s Plate set another record at $13.5M (up over $2M from 2016). The majority of this growth has come via digital channels and is driven by international wagering which is where many of the new opportunities are.

To continue our commitment to the on-track experience and develop a new generation of fans, WEG has diversified its executive team. An outcome is we have made excellent progress with delivering our strategic pillar that mandates becoming a Guest Centric organization. Our work in customer segmentation paired with our internally aligned priority to deliver a thrilling experience for all guests continues to be a catalyst for growth in attracting new fans to horseracing.

The synergy created amongst our internationally trained culinary team, on-trend events team, superior guest experience team and our dynamic marketing and sales teams are defining an everyday and special event on-site experience that is well positioned to dramatically grow our fan base. We have also invested in a Standardbred Concierge program to ensure that the owner experience is second to none. Our success is tied to driving attendance and creating winning experiences at our racetracks for all fans, horse people and stakeholders. You will notice that our decisions are made principally with reference to our customers and business, which is wagering and entertainment based. Attracting new fans to Standardbred racing at the Woodbine facility has proven very difficult over the years – and unfortunately we have even turned off a few fans. This is not so of Mohawk. We are very excited to invest in the property and make it a centerpiece for Standardbred racing.

Of course our plans also include the optimal use of our land assets and profitable development of our properties to benefit our core business of racing. Perhaps the most important indication of our commitment to a successful long term future for both breeds is our work on long term gaming funding at both Mohawk and Woodbine. At Mohawk in particular, we secured a long-term agreement with the OLG to maintain gaming at Mohawk (to our knowledge the only Standardbred track in the province to have this certainty). This will provide stability and self-sufficiency. It will insulate us from potential changes in government funding policy and other pressures on government funding. This has required a huge investment of our management resources but places us in a very fortunate position as other jurisdictions face regular reviews and incursions on financing. Additionally, we announced a $10 million investment into the facility to ensure we could fulfill our promise to ensure that Mohawk becomes the world-class venue we envision.

Our horse people are critical stakeholders. Our consultations with and feedback from horse people indicated that they favour our decision. Further our dialogue with them remains on-going. WEG recently commenced detailed work on a long-term development master plan for the Mohawk property centered around Standardbred racing. The first group that our Master Plan consultants met with were members of the Board of COSA.

WEG has no intention to change the revenue split to disadvantage Standardbred racing. WEG is committed to the growth and prosperity of the racetracks in the Standardbred Alliance and providing ongoing support for the Standardbred breeders in the Province. This commitment will remain in place as will WEG’s goal to maintain and consolidate Woodbine at Mohawk Park as the number one Standardbred racetrack in North America.

In conclusion, we are convinced that the move to Woodbine at Mohawk Park will be an enormous success. We are committing the financial and executive resources to support that. It will be a fantastic facility. As outlined above, our business is strong and our Standardbred business is treated very well, as it should be. We look forward to doing even better. We invite questions from and dialogue with our horse people and other stakeholders.

Sincerely,

H. B. Clay Horner, Chairman
James J. Lawson, CEO
John D. Fielding, Board of Directors
Douglas Millard, Board of Directors

CC: Hugh Mitchell, Ontario Racing, Western Fair District; Stephen Rigby, OLG
Bill O’Donnell, COSA; Bruce Barbour, GCGC; Ted Clarke, Grand River Raceway;
Ian Fleming, Clinton Raceway; Board of Directors, Woodbine Entertainment Group
Standardbred Canada; The Harness Edge; Harness Racing Update


The views presented in Trot Blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Standardbred Canada.

July 19, 2017 - 8:57 amChange is good. Einstein's

Allin Yorpus SAID...

Change is good.
Einstein's definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting change.
It wasn't working with the current Woodbine set up.
For those who do not like the move to Mohawk the alternative would have been a new 1 mile harness track and grandstand built on the Woodbine property in the same way The Meadowlands is set up with all the land sharing they currently employ. Pretty sure there was room. There is still that option in the future.
Mohawk has the opportunity to grow and be a world class track with the designation of WEG's sole harness racing being there.
Time will tell.
I love Mohawk from April till October.
In the months of less ideal weather conditions with the fog and rain and snow... not so much.
Time will tell.
The one thing I have found and I don't mean to tick anyone off is that...
Harness horseman "overall" seem less likely to do anything to voice their concern other than to write a letter.
Could it be that in comparison to other tracks such as The Meadowlands, The Meadows or Pocono that the purses are really good here so why bite the hand that feeds you?
I have seen where people say that thoroughbreds race for more money. That may be true per 1 race, but overall they cannot race as often and their season is shorter.
Race for $18,500 30 times (555,000 total) or $50,000 11 times ($550,000 total)

If you truly have a beef stop writing letters and just do something about it.

July 16, 2017 - 9:29 pmMr Bush... I am far more

Will Yamakva SAID...

Mr Bush... I am far more aware of the way of the world, however, Harness racing is NOT Amazon. In the gambling world, online gambling (and I am not talking about gambling on horse racing online) is Amazon. Race tracks are still a brick and mortar business. You still have costs that stores do. You still have to pay cashiers, you still have to pay water and electric bills for a place that your customers actually do walk into. You still have employees that work at that store. You still have to pay rent and other things associated with that store. Essentially, you are Aeropostale, Guess, Abecrombie and Fitch, American Apperal, BCBG, Staples, Sports Authority or the Office Depot.... you still have stores, but many, if not all, had to close for the company to exist. You simply cant say "we have to switch" and no matter what they choose, it is going to make things better. That is willfully ignoring the facts. The more shopping that goes online, the more stores you have to close because the costs of operating that store remain the same despite the sales shifting online, and eventually the costs of operating that store are not worth remaining open.

So yes, I can criticize change, and I can see what the current changes mean for the game. This change is not good for harness racing long term. In fact, you have heard me say this all along every time the conversation of year-round racing at Mohawk comes up.

July 16, 2017 - 9:20 pmWell written Patricia Martin.

Well written Patricia Martin.

July 16, 2017 - 8:52 pmJohn Hill... selling more

Will Yamakva SAID...

John Hill... selling more cheeseburgers is NOT the answer, it is what a track depends on. It is revenue that does not go back to the gambler. If you have $10k in handle, the track only gets a few percent of that money. At least 80% of that goes back to the gamblers, with the track, the government and the horseman are left splitting the remaining 20%. Revenue from on-track sales, is 100% kept at the track. This covers costs. You really need to look at the bigger picture of the track costs and what it costs to run a track. A track can't operate on handle alone.

July 16, 2017 - 2:57 pmMany, like Will, need to deal

chris bush SAID...

Many, like Will, need to deal with the new world realities. Amazon is the largest retailer in the States with no brick and mortar stores. Who would have imagined that 10 years ago? Online sales at other successful companies are growing. Everyone must adjust to new preferences. The fact that racing's handle mostly comes offsite reflect these new realities. You can wager at home now even if you can't make it to the track. In the past you couldn't. That's progress. Most tracks have offsite handles in the 92% range. So WEG is actually doing quite well in comparison. Yesteryear is gone. You can't continue to be the exercise in contradiction that you are by criticizing racing for not changing to reflect the new economy and then complain when they do. This is 2017 not 1971. Move on.

July 16, 2017 - 12:23 pmIf you want to believe

If you want to believe something read the letter from Mr. Burgess. That's where it's at.

July 16, 2017 - 12:22 pmThank you Brenda for the

Thank you Brenda for the info. I also don't have a smartphone and will not get one (just another monthly expense). However not having been to Mohawk for quite awhile, I was unaware they no longer have tellers on certain nights. Where was COSA when that took place? Do they not feel any responsibility for maintaining jobs? Thinking back to the strike by tellers at Weg years ago, I would say the answer is no.

July 16, 2017 - 12:11 pmSheldon I know you train your

Sheldon I know you train your own horses but, have you ever tried owning a horse trained by someone else and having to race at the "alliance" tracks?

July 16, 2017 - 12:06 pmUnfortunately Will, many

Unfortunately Will, many people have never been able to see the writing on the wall. That's the saddest part of harness racing - no fight (as usual).

July 16, 2017 - 11:38 amAfter been involved in the

brad snel SAID...

After been involved in the harness racing industry, working my way from a groom to trainer and then owner I have seen the harness racing indusrty struggling but staying afloat since the time they actually sold Greenwood to developers. The board has done, at least, what they needed to, in assisting the harness racing community either through upgrades or revenue sharing from the slots. Mention the word "thoroughbred" though and immediately the word standardbred is supplanted in their memory. My question is how many real horsemen and women actually sit on the WEG board and really understand what goes on in going to the barn everyday to make sure the horses are receiving the utmost care under the eye of the trainer and groom. Let's face it, they want us out of Woodbine to make room for the expansion of a hotel on the grounds which has already been approved, and some sort of theme park or other carnival of entertainment. If they go ahead with this Mohawk Park project will they open up the empty dorms again at Mohawk and resurrect the kitchen backstretch? Don't bet on that one either. Get ready folks, because this move to permanent residence is a done deal in my opinion, with no or little consideration of the harness racing men and women that have brought the harness business to its pinnacle that it is today!

July 16, 2017 - 9:35 amBeing old enough and

Being old enough and fortunate to have been associated with a handful of the founding fathers of Ontario Harness Racing, I always remember a quote that for years has put many WEG (OJC) decisions in perspective. "The Ontario Jockey Club's business is racing Standardbreds, which supports their hobby, which is racing Thoroughbreds".
After a very close view since 1959 this has always held true. GOOD LUCK!

July 16, 2017 - 8:36 amMr Yamakva... the reason for

John Hill SAID...

Mr Yamakva... the reason for the off site handle being so high at 85% may be Woodbine itself !! If you think selling a few more cheeseburgers is the answer you are once again sadly mistaken. You say the 85% has to change yet you want things to stay the same. Time for a change.

July 15, 2017 - 6:05 pmJohn Hill..... you said,

Will Yamakva SAID...

John Hill..... you said, "People who don't want to drive 45 minutes to Mohawk can be there with a few clicks of mouse so we don't lose them as customers."

Yes you do lose them as customers. Well, maybe not you the horseman, but you are not the only one that needs them. The track itself needs them. Not a cent goes to the track if they are at home, feeding themselves, drinking their own beer, and not buying programs or souveniers. Betting only gets you a few cents off each dollar they spend. The track gets the 70-80 cents of each dollar spent on the things that I mentioned a few lines above. Remember, the track has far more to pay for, then just you horsemen. They have to pay the track staff, the security, the TV crew, the people in the concession booths, the bartenders, the tellers and a bunch of other people. That money CAN'T come from handle. It has to come from on-track revenue.

Not, "perhaps that 85% number would change", it has to change. The fact it so high even when they are at Woodbine, is not good.

July 15, 2017 - 10:23 amWill, I have never talked

john thomas SAID...

Will,
I have never talked about the business end remember, just the thrill of seeing a race close up and the style Mohawk offers.
BTW
See "I am glad harness" by LC...
This is all I am talking about and so clearly people DO share the same sentiment as I do.
Great Place to view a race.
You want to keep talking, Mr Yamakva, about the business end, I am clearly not even talking about that.

July 15, 2017 - 9:07 amPeople who don't want to

John Hill SAID...

People who don't want to drive 45 minutes to Mohawk can be there with a few clicks of mouse so we don't lose them as customers. People don't go to Woodbine to watch the horses so I don't think that because there aren't horses racing off in distance somewhere they won't come to gamble. Woodbine is for gamblers and Mohawk is much more family friendly which will bring future fans, ever seen any kids at Woodbine ? I think a 5/8ths of a mile track would be much better for the fans as the horses line up for the start of the race in front of the grandstand then go past the grandstand twice more during the race. There would be more action during the races which is what the bettors want. Perhaps that 85% number would change for the better at Mohawk. This could be a new beginning for standardbred racing with more marketing and promotions as there is a vast untapped fan base in the area and the betting theatres in Toronto would keep the gamblers there happy.

July 14, 2017 - 10:31 pmTrack closures are

Jim Brown SAID...

Track closures are unsettling. Some of the ones I used to visit are no longer there anymore. I see the struggles people are having with Woodbine and Mohawk, my own point of view: I'm two hours from Mohawk and two and a half to three from Woodbine. Going to year round racing at Mohawk I believe is good for our sport. The sport of racing promotes itself take for instance Woodbine. Go stand directly in front of the finish line for a harness race, as the race completes (by the way its forty of fifty feet away from you or further), now take on the question: Where's the winner circle? Explain that to someone. Down the street and around the corner basically two blocks away. This is why year round racing at Mohawk is so much better. It is much easier to explain where the winner circle is when you are standing in front of the race track and the racing action is an arm's length away, so too is the winner's circle.

July 14, 2017 - 8:41 pmWe get that you love Mohawk

Will Yamakva SAID...

We get that you love Mohawk Mr Thomas..... but if you cant see the writing on the wall from a business perspective, it's time to pay attention as to how bad this is for the sport. Look at the stats alone. 85% of the handle is NOT coming from Mohawk, so clearly people do not share the same sentiment you do.

July 14, 2017 - 9:30 amMohawk has distinct

john thomas SAID...

Mohawk has distinct advantages over Woodbine.
Mohawk is able to produce a more exciting product on the track.
You can actually see the race.
There are more moves made at Mohawk during the race. Woodbine is like watching a bad half mile track form 5 miles away.
I am looking forward to Mohawk being upgraded. It's already a beautiful track as is but the new features to come could make it compete for the number 1 track in North America.
I have many fond memories of Mohawk...None for Woodbine.

I LOVE Mohawk...

July 13, 2017 - 9:29 pm"Fan access should not be

Will Yamakva SAID...

"Fan access should not be much of a problem."

You really think that people that have to drive 20 minutes or more just to get to the 401, and then have to drive 30 minutes or more to Mohawk, are going to want to travel that far? They would have to leave at about 6pm to get there for post time, and then still not get home until about 11 if they miss the last 3 races or so.

85% of handle being off track is not acceptable. There is no reason for the track to put up the big bucks to keep the harness folks at Woodbine. Reality is they need the revenue from people at the track with things NOT handle related. The track still has people to pay from the track maintenance staff, to the folks that run the snack bar to the people that sweep the grandstands and that money cant solely come from handle.

July 13, 2017 - 5:31 pmNot even a close call. Racing

chris bush SAID...

Not even a close call. Racing has existed at Woodbine for years with little to no benefit for fans, owners, trainers, or horses. It's glorified bad half mile racing with a terrible view. It's difficult to get to and very few attend. Mohawk has a superior track, racing location for participants, and betting opportunities for customers since all horses have a reasonable chance compared to Woodbine. Not to mention the spectacular view. Are we going to make new sensible fact based progressive changes or cling to our outdated, emotional/irrational feelings. With a new vision and focus on a facility dedicated to standardbreds, WEG should be commended. Take off the rose colored glasses of the past that's long gone and move on to the future.

July 13, 2017 - 4:21 pmYou quote one prominent U.S.

Sheldon Rose SAID...

You quote one prominent U.S. Standardbred owner, who is also a member of the Hambletonian Society. Go to the track and talk to those of us who own and race horses. You will probably get a different response. We fill the entry box for WEG, but when we finish worse than 5th, we receive nothing. We pay out of our pockets for the trucks, trailers and gas. Not so with the thoroughbreds. All costs for the standardbreds have been downloaded to the owners and trainers, yet the thoroughbreds receive stabling as well as a hitching fee.

July 13, 2017 - 2:44 pmAs a fan, I am glad harness

L. C. SAID...

As a fan, I am glad harness racing will be held year round at Mohawk. Woodbine is a terrible place to watch harness racing. I look forward to the next time the Breeders Crown is held in the Toronto. Mohawk is located directly off an exit of a major highway. Fan access should not be much of a problem.

July 13, 2017 - 1:41 pmIf 85% of the handle is done

Don Patrick SAID...

If 85% of the handle is done off site, why is part of your plan for Mohawk to build VIP suites? 85% of your audience never sets foot in the place.

You need to start talking to people who actually attend live racing, or you will be doing a disservice to your customer base.

Some of Mr Burgess' ideas may seem antiquated, but some of WEG's initiatives are being carried out by people who seem to rarely attend live racing. Try coming to the track and talking to those of us who are here nightly.

July 12, 2017 - 9:15 pmMr Burgess' thoughts are

Geoff Maltby SAID...

Mr Burgess' thoughts are "outdated or non factual" ? I am sure since Mr Burgess is a lawyer he would not comment on "non factual" events. Also, why was it we built standardbred racing up when stabling and accommodations were available at all the tracks? I will tell you... because more then half the industry needed that, to control operational costs. Since that was all downloaded onto the owners we have seen the vast decline in horse population. If you (WEG) are spending "millions" on Mohawk, consider opening the backstretch again, you would have your population of horses there available to you while giving the horses a great place to develop into the future stars needed. Just a thought from a guy who has always had his own farm but saw the value of racetrack stabling.

July 12, 2017 - 7:42 pmI have read both Robert

I have read both Robert Burgess' letter and the one from Woodbine. Mr. Burgess has expressed similar concerns as myself. Anytime your presence is removed from a city of millions compared to Milton, a town of 125,000, horsepeople should be concerned. There is a lot of discussions to be had between the affected parties, and questions to be answered. The first one I would ask is where did the name come from? Woodbine at Mohawk Park? Share of wagering revenue, depending where it is bet, and on what product. Horsepeople need to know this information.
I recently was at Mohawk on a Monday night and was told there are no longer tellers to take my wager! We all don't have smart phones or want to use the SAM machine. I didn't place that wager.
What about the backstretch at Mohawk? Dorms, cafeteria, the food offered on race nights... these things are still offered to the Thoroughbreds. Our owners need to be also treated like they matter.
There use to be Saturday afternoon cards in the winter and on special race days like Boxing Day. This was great for the wagering.
WEG joined with the Alliance Tracks to consolidate costs to the benefit of everyone, and all will agree that the on-track experience at Mohawk is better than at Woodbine and should be used to showcase our biggest events.
There is to be $10 million spent at Mohawk, how much at Woodbine? These will be significant expenditures and we hope they will benefit both breeds and help to continue to promote the sport of racing and grow the wagering.
Since the Government cancelled Slots at Racetrack program the Standardbred industry has experienced many changes and hardships, losing horses and owners. I hope that all horsepeople join in the discussions and have their voices heard so the right decisions can be make for us all.

July 12, 2017 - 5:38 pmIs WEG going to reopen the

Is WEG going to reopen the stabling and dorms at Mohawk?


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