Woodbine Prepared for Year of Change, Growth

Woodbine Prepared for Year of Change, Growth
Photo: Michael Burns

by Kelsey Riley

For the last 16 years, Woodbine Racetrack near Toronto, Canada, has been focused on expansion. A remodeled facility, the installation of slot machines and Polytrack, and a Breeders’ Cup are just a few of the monumental events planned and executed by the track’s operating company, Woodbine Entertainment Group, under the hand of longtime chief executive officer and chairman David Willmot.

This year, change will be inevitable as Willmot leaves his position as CEO of WEG. But with increases in field size and wagering in 2009, and an improved graded stakes calendar for 2010, the changes are expected to be positive when Woodbine opens April 2 for its 54th Thoroughbred meet.

Willmot will remain CEO of WEG until June 4, 2010, when he will pass the position to current president and chief operating officer Nick Eaves. Willmot will retain the position of chairman, a role he has filled since 2001.

“I agreed to go in as CEO for three years, and I’ve been there for 15,” Willmot said of his reasons for leaving the position. “I just think that it’s important for flow, transition, promotion, and fresh blood in an organization. We have a really good young management team, and it’s time for them to assume more responsibility.”

Eaves has 16 years of leadership experience with WEG. He has been the COO of the company since 1994, and in 2006 was named president. Eaves said his current role includes “overseeing our overall business plan and making sure that we’re delivering on (our) objectives.”

Eaves said he expects his new role to involve more responsibility.

“With David giving up the CEO role and thankfully staying on as chairman, more will be expected of each of us, and as CEO, I’ll be taking more of a leadership role in the development of (business) strategy, and making sure we are executing in the way that we need to build this business in what are obviously pretty challenging times,” Eaves said.

Solid numbers for 2009

Woodbine realized a profitable season in 2009 despite challenging times. While many North American tracks saw sharp decreases in wagering last year, betting on Woodbine’s live Thoroughbred meet increased 7% from $337,660,570 in 2008 to $361,435,208 in 2009.

Woodbine racing was broadcast on TVG for the first time in 2009, which Eaves said contributed to the upswing. He also cited Woodbine’s two track surfaces and healthy purse structure, which combined contributed to larger field sizes and more betting dollars.

“Our purse scale has meant that we have the best local horses, and it has also attracted other strings of horses from across North America,” Eaves said. “A customer wants a good, full field of competitive horses, and that’s what will drive pool size.”

In 2009, purses at Woodbine averaged $539,528 (U.S.) per day, placing it among the top five tracks in North America in terms of average daily purses. Over the course of 167 days, field size averaged a strong 9.1 horses per race.

“The quality of our two Thoroughbred racing surfaces has helped immensely,” Eaves said. “Our 1 1/2-mile E.P. Taylor turf course is considered by anyone you talk to as probably the best turf course in North America, and one of the best in the world. Our Polytrack surface has continued to perform well; it has helped increase our average field size per race.”

The past 16 years have seen Woodbine undergo a gradual facelift. The process began in 1994 with a $200 million renovation project, including a complete refurbishment of the racing surfaces: a seven-furlong Standardbred track was installed, surrounded by a resurfaced one-mile dirt track.

The E.P. Taylor turf course completed the trio of tracks, making Woodbine the only racetrack in North America equipped to offer full cards of Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing on the same day. In 1996, the Breeders’ Cup made its first appearance outside the United States at Woodbine, and four years later, slots arrived.

In 2006, the dirt track was replaced with Polytrack, making Woodbine the second Thoroughbred track in North America to employ that synthetic surface, behind Turfway Park. Also in 2006, a plan was unveiled to turn Woodbine into a multifaceted entertainment district. The project, dubbed Woodbine Live!, involves turning the 25 empty acres surrounding Woodbine into a hub of clubs, restaurants, shopping malls, and other attractions.

Focus on horse racing

Willmot notes that success has stemmed from treating WEG like a profitable business, and being customer-oriented. By improving facilities, customer service, and product, and offering a variety of gaming opportunities through Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing and on- and off-track wagering, WEG has become a competitive gaming corporation, he said. The company also operates 27 off-track wagering facilities.

“We became much more customer-friendly, and customer-focused, which made us more competitive with other gaming competition,” Willmot said. “We recognize that in order to be competitive these days, you need more than one product line. Racetracks are in the gaming business, and as long as we keep focused on our core business, that’s the most important thing.”

Keeping that focus, Willmot said, will create positive implications for horse people.

“Having been an owner and a breeder, I know the costs of horses, and I know what keeps horsemen and breeders in business is the flow of good purses. You can’t expect people to operate on a losing basis with low purses out of a love for the industry. That just won’t sustain itself.”

WEG looks to ride the momentum of a strong 2009 Thoroughbred meet into 2010. Two areas where further improvements will be seen this year are the Canadian graded-stakes schedule and Ontario’s Thoroughbred Improvement Program purse bonuses.

The Canadian Graded Stakes Committee announced in February that 35 stakes in Canada would be graded for 2010, including five grade I races. The schedule includes upgrades for two turf sprint events: the Nearctic Stakes and the Scotts Highlander Stakes.

The Nearctic, a premier fall event, will be upgraded from grade II status in 2009 to grade I status for 2010, and the Scotts Highlander, which was a grade III event in 2009, is listed as grade II for 2010.

All but four of the graded races will be contested at Woodbine. There are three major racing days set for Woodbine this year: The July 4 Queen’s Plate, the Sept. 19 Woodbine Mile (gr. IT), and the Oct. 16 Pattison Canadian International (gr. IT). Each will have two graded stakes on the undercard.

The Queen’s Plate, Canada’s premier classic for 3-year-olds bred in Canada, was moved back a week this year from its original calendar spot. The Queen Elizabeth II is expected to be in Ontario July 4, and while it has not been confirmed, a visit by the Queen at Canada’s most important race would be a first since 1997, and the second since 1973.

Awards for owners, breeders

In addition to the healthy purses and stakes schedule offered at Woodbine, additional money is available for qualified owners and breeders through TIP, which is designed to reward the owners and breeders of Ontario-bred and Ontario-sired runners. The 2010 TIP is worth about $21 million, and is highlighted by an increased purse bonus of 20% to Ontario-bred or Ontario-sired winners of open races in the province in 2010.

TIP also fuels the Ontario Sire Stakes program, a program of 26 stakes throughout the meet, each worth$125,000. There is also money allocated to reward Ontario- and Canadian-bred horses that win stakes in Canada and outside the country. The owners of stallions standing in Ontario also receive monetary awards based on the success of their sire’s progeny.

TIP is overseen by the Ontario division of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society, and goes a long way to reward locals racing in the lucrative Woodbine program.

“With the locals, there’s more demand to breed to Ontario stallions because racing has become so tough here,” Ontario CTHS president Glenn Sikura told The Blood-Horse in February. “If somebody wants to be in the horse business in the local program, there’s a lot of money to be had here.”

There also is hope Woodbine Live! will move forward in 2010. Willmot said zoning has been approved on the land that will become the project site, but site-plan approval is still in the works. There has been speculation the project has been slowed by the current economic crisis, but Willmot said that’s not the case.

“It just takes a long time to work through the necessary approvals by the city of Toronto,” Willmot said. “Then you have to go out and get leases signed, which no one will do until a site plan is finished.”

WEG hopes ground will be broken on Woodbine Live in 2011. In the meantime, WEG will continue to move forward, fueled by strong 2009 numbers and, for the first time since 1994, a new CEO.

“I’m thrilled to be embarking on the role,” Eaves said. “It’s a real honor for me to be able to lead this organization, and we’re going to continue to perform.”

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