by Alex Campbell
After a year of uncertainty due to the cancellation of the Ontario slots-at-racetracks program, Woodbine is set to begin its 133-day Thoroughbred meet April 20.
Highlighted once again by the 154th running of the $1 million Queen's Plate Stakes, the 2013 meet is 23 days shorter and will begin two weeks later than normal. But for trainer Mark Casse, who is looking to secure his seventh consecutive Woodbine training title this season, preparation for the meet hasn't been impacted too significantly.
"Fortunately, it's not as critical to us because we train most of our horses in Florida for the winter time," he said. "It has to be very tough on the people who stay in Toronto all winter."
Some of the larger local operations, like the one belonging to recent Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee Sid Attard, have taken advantage of regional training centers that have been open since January.
"We sent some to Florida and we sent some others to the Stronach people and their five-eighths of a mile track," Attard said. "We sent them where we could start them in January to gallop them or put them on the exerciser. They can come into Woodbine now and they have a foundation."
When the 2012 Woodbine meet ended last December, no commitment had been made for a 2013 season and beyond. But neither Casse nor Attard were concerned about whether there would be racing at Woodbine this season.
"I figured if the government was smarter than a third-grader, we would have racing," Casse said. "I was pretty confident, I wasn't absolutely sure, but I was confident. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how meaningful and how important it is to everybody."
"To tell you the truth, I was never worried there wasn't going to be racing this season," Attard said. "I knew the start was going to be later, but I always thought there was going to be racing this year."
Woodbine Entertainment Group eventually announced in late January it had secured a funding arrangement with the provincial government to guarantee live racing at the track for the next two years. But there is still some uncertainty with the stakes schedule and purse money available for those races throughout the meet. Woodbine has maintained overnight purse levels from 2012 through the first condition book, which covers eight days of racing through May 5.
"Our overnight purses will not change; you will see that in each condition book after another," said Jamie Martin, executive vice president of racing for WEG. "There will be further changes to stakes beyond July 7. We just haven't got all of the information we need to make those decisions, but we're pretty close."
Instead of releasing a complete stakes schedule as it has in years past, the racing office released a spring schedule that covers races through the Queen's Plate July 7. Several graded stakes have seen their purses cut by $50,000 or $100,000 over the first half of the meet, while other stakes have seen purse increases of $25,000 or $50,000.
While still waiting on further details to develop a schedule for the second half of the season, the racing office felt it was necessary to give some clarity about the upcoming meet.
"The horsemen needed to be able to start managing their plans for their stakes horses, so for their benefit, and for the benefit of the industry as a whole, we needed to give them a certain amount of commitment to go forward on," said Steve Koch, vice president of Thoroughbred racing at WEG.
Martin said details of the Thoroughbred Improvement Program, which make up a portion of purses available for Woodbine stakes, have yet to be determined. Woodbine is also waiting to see figures from pari-mutuel handle during the opening portions of the meet before making further decisions on stakes.
The dates of some stakes for the second half of the meet were revealed as part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge Series. But two of Woodbine's most prestigious turf races, the Pattison Canadian International and the E. P. Taylor Stakes, have lost their "Win and You're In" status for 2013.
"The fact of the matter is, the E. P. Taylor and the International haven't been a clear path to the Breeders' Cup," Koch said.
Woodbine's 2013 meet will continue through Dec. 15.