by Alex Campbell
A 167-day meet at Woodbine in Ontario, Canada, is set to begin April 6, but the lingering slots-at-racetracks issue could make the 2012 meet the last one of its kind.
With the provincial government preparing to end the 14-year agreement with Ontario racetracks and horsemen in 2013, Woodbine’s purse structure will remain relatively unchanged this season. While purses for the bottom end of the conditions have been increased slightly, purses for maiden special weight events for horses sired by Ontario stallions have been cut by about 10%, from $55,900 in 2011 to $50,000 per race in 2012.
“Every year we’ve had this program, we’ve had more and more races, which means more and more purse money,” said Steve Lym, director of racing and racing secretary at Woodbine. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to give away the same amount of money in 2012 just due to the increase in the number of races that we’re going to write.
“It may encourage trainers to run their horses in open company, if they’re good enough, for the extra purse money.”
The meet will also have a different feel this season, as it will run later into December. Woodbine’s 2011 meet closed Dec. 4, but the 2012 meet will come to an end two weeks later than normal on Dec. 16.
“We were looking to maximize our field size in our entries,” Lym said. “Last year we had trouble filling five days a week in August and early September because come August or so the older horses are kind of tired, and the young ones are just starting to come through.
“That being said, we tried something new where we broke the meet into three distinct meets under one umbrella meet.”
That means Woodbine will write cheaper races in the spring and in the fall to attract trainers who normally race at Fort Erie Racetrack & Slots before and after that meet, and then enhance the level of racing during the summer by writing races with higher purses.
“To facilitate running later in the year and to get the best field size that we could, we decided to drop a few days in August when it’s tough to fill, and maybe we’ll go later in the year,” Lym said.
Maximizing field sizes may also help Woodbine continue the upward trend of pari-mutuel handle. In 2011 Woodbine’s all-sources total was $423,210,680, up 7.5% from 2010.
It was the third straight year of notable handle growth, and the main reason was an increase in wagering from the United States. Wagering on Woodbine from U.S. outlets was up 15.6% in 2011 from 2010, but wagering from Woodbine’s home market area was down 3.2% in 2011.
Woodbine leaders return for 2012
Woodbine’s leading trainer, Mark Casse, returns with a full contingent of horses as he looks to duplicate the 2011 season in which he broke the late Frank Passero Jr.’s 17-year old training record of 89 wins in one Woodbine meet. Casse ended 2011 with 119 victories at Woodbine, 13 of them in stakes.
“Anytime you can do something that nobody else has done that’s important, and I was very proud of that,” Casse said. “Woodbine is like home for me, so being able to do something that nobody else has ever done, and to be able to do it at Woodbine, where I have great respect for the racing and the facility and the entire place, it’s just a nice feeling.”
One major prize in Canada remains for Casse, who has now been Woodbine’s leading trainer six times and is the heavy favorite to be named Canada’s top trainer at the Sovereign Awards April 5. Despite all of his success at Woodbine throughout his training career, Casse has never won the Queen’s Plate. But he’s confident in his group of eight 2012 nominees, including winter book favorite and Florida Oaks winner Dixie Strike.
“I think probably at this point in time we have the strongest contingent for the Queen’s Plate that we’ve ever had,” he said.
Along with Dixie Strike, Casse also singled out Golden Ridge and Making Amends as two potential sleepers that could find themselves in the starting gate for the $1 million Queen’s Plate. The race, restricted to Canadian-bred 3-year olds, is on June 24.
“Golden Ridge has only run once. He ran very well at Gulfstream, and I think he has the potential to possibly be a Queen’s Plate horse,” Casse said. “Making Amends went through a period where he didn’t run very well, but we ran him in Ocala (in Florida) two weeks ago and he ran quite well. I think he’s a pretty talented horse.”
Woodbine’s top jockey from 2011, Luis Contreras, is also returning north of the border to defend his riding title after a successful winter in Florida. Contreras rode quite a bit for Casse this winter, including guiding John Oxley’s Prospective to victory in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II).
“I’ve been riding a lot for Mr. Casse, and it has been awesome,” Contreras said. “I’m a big, big supporter of Mark Casse, and I’m happy to be riding for Casse’s barn. Now I’ve got Prospective. I rode him in the Breeders’ Cup and hopefully (will ride him in) the Kentucky Derby.”
Contreras recorded 14 victories in 165 starts at Gulfstream Park this winter while riding for several Woodbine outfits, including Casse, Brian Lynch, and Michael De Paulo. He is a finalist for the Sovereign Award as Canada’s top jockey and, like Casse, is the favorite to win the award.
Contreras had 212 wins at Woodbine last season, including victories in each leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. He won the Queen’s Plate on Inglorious and the Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes on Pender Harbour.
Contreras is returning to Woodbine with his eyes set on Mickey Walls’ riding record of 221 wins in a Woodbine meet set in 1991. At the halfway point of the 2011 meet, Contreras was on pace to set the new win standard for jockeys, but his win rate slowed in the second half of the season, leaving him nine wins shy of matching the record.
Contreras believes the key to breaking the record and defending his Woodbine riding title starts in the early hours of the day on the training track.
“The main thing is to work hard in the mornings,” he said. “I also want to try to keep all of the trainers happy with my rides in races. I really want to break Mickey Walls’ record for winners.”
Important decisions to be made
Despite Woodbine’s purse structure remaining the same for the 2012 season, most horsemen, including Casse, have concerns about what the future holds for horse racing in Ontario should the provincial government go through with its plan to end the slots-at-racetracks program.
Casse has seen the Ontario racing and breeding program improve significantly over the past decade, and believes all of the progress would be destroyed should the approximately $345 million per year the province’s horsemen receive through the program via purse money be eliminated.
“It’s a shame because it has been looked at as everybody’s model, and Woodbine has made such strides,” he said. “I would say 10 years ago, Woodbine would have been considered a 'C' track, but now they’re considered an 'A' track.
“Not only has the competition gotten better, but in the last couple of years their breeding program has come back. It used to be that the Canadian-breds just had to run against themselves, but now they can step out and run against anybody.”
As one of the top trainers in North America, Casse has the luxury of moving his base of operations to another track in the U.S. should purses be significantly decreased. But the Ontario Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association board member is fearful his employees and friends may not be as lucky.
“It’s going to affect me some, but I’m more concerned about how it’s going to affect my friends,” he said. “They’re not taking into consideration how the money trickles everywhere, whether it’s to your vet or your blacksmith.
“We have a payroll of almost $2 million in Canada, and it is all Canadians.”
The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. already said it will terminate its partnership with at least six racetracks, mostly harness facilities. But the issue is politically divisive; some slots operations could be privatized and live racing programs maintained.
In the meantime, the Ontario horse racing community will be focused on opening weekend of the province’s signature meet. Woodbine has three days of live racing April 6-8. Two stakes races will be run opening weekend, including the five-furlong Debut Stakes for 4-year olds and up sired by Ontario stallions.
The 10-race card on opening day attracted 101 entries.