Michael Burns

Eaves: Closure of Woodbine Possible in 2013

The track president cited the loss of slots and a revenue-sharing deal with Ontario.

by Alex Campbell

As Woodbine prepares to hold the 153rd edition of the $1 million Queen’s Plate June 24, Nick Eaves, the track’s president and chief executive officer, stunned the crowd at the June 21 post-position draw by revealing that Woodbine may be forced to close next April.

If the track were to close for the 2013 season, Sunday’s Queen’s Plate, North America’s longest continually run stakes, would be the last.

“If we don’t have an operating model to take us past the first of April 2013, then I can’t see a way for us to operate,” Eaves said. “If we’re not operating, there won’t be a Queen’s Plate.”

According to Eaves, the track would lose 50% of its revenue as a result of the cancellation of the slots-at-racetracks program by the Ontario provincial government. The Ontario provincial government officially passed its 2012 budget June 20, putting a permanent end to the slots-at-racetracks program and opening the door for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. to go ahead with its plan to “modernize” gaming in the province.

“It’s something that’s not possible for us, to lose the product line that has allowed us to compete, and be expected as an industry to sustain ourselves on our own,” Eaves said. “How are we expected to compete when the referee is also our opponent?”

Eaves noted that Woodbine Entertainment Group has invested millions of dollars into capital expenditures in order to house slots at Woodbine as part of the slots-at-racetracks program, including $32 million to expand the operation in 2010. That investment will now only allow Woodbine to charge rent for the space, as opposed to participating in the previous revenue-sharing arrangement.

Thoroughbred racing is held at two of the province’s 17 racetracks. Fort Erie Race Track has announced it will be forced to close after the 2012 racing season. The track lost its slots operation at the end of April.

The province has pledged $50 million to the Ontario horse racing industry over the next three years in transitional funding to help it adjust to the changing landscape. The government has also set up a panel of three former cabinet ministers who will decide how the province can support the transition and how the funds will be allocated, and have encouraged participation from those working in the industry.

Despite the province putting forth the transitional fund, Eaves believes if horse racing is no longer in the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.’s plans, it will be tough for Woodbine to remain open past this year.

“WEG hopes that the government will include the successful and participatory integration of horse racing into the province’s overall gaming strategy,” he said. “Otherwise it is hard to see the numbers working to allow WEG to be more than, at best, a pale imitation of its current status as a renowned international leader in both the Thoroughbred and Standardbred industries and the anchor of Ontario’s horse racing and breeding industry.”

WEG holds harness racing at Woodbine and Mohawk Raceway, another track with slots. It is considered among the best in North America.