Horses compete in a preliminary race before the Queen's Plate horse race at Woodbine Race Track, in Toronto, Sunday, July 2, 2017. The COVID-19 pandemic didn't prevent Woodbine Entertainment from staging harness and thoroughbred races this year but CEO Jim Lawson says it certainly dealt the organization a huge financial blow. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

Despite racing in 2020, COVID-19 pandemic dealt Woodbine Entertainment economic blow

Despite racing in 2020, COVID-19 pandemic dealt Woodbine Entertainment economic blow

TORONTO — The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t prevent Woodbine Entertainment from staging harness and thoroughbred races this year but CEO Jim Lawson says it certainly dealt the organization a huge financial blow.

Lawson estimates the cancellation of harness racing for about two months and a late start of thoroughbred season resulted in about a $100-million wagering handle shortfall. And the absence of fans at either Woodbine Racetrack or Woodbine Mohawk Park forced Woodbine Entertainment to permanently lay off between 500 and 1,000 employees.

As a result, Lawson said the pandemic has cost his organization over $30 million.

“That’s not sustainable, we need to make some major adjustments,” Lawson stated during a telephone interview Tuesday. “I’d talked quite positively about Woodbine not having any government support by 2023 or 2024 but now, quite frankly, I don’t see that happening.

“That’s a real problem because the industry wants to be strong enough to stand on its own. What we’ve done is manage by laying off a huge percentage of our workforce and everything else to cut costs and that’s not a good way to grow or sustain a business.”

Some cuts have come in capital repair as Woodbine budgets $25 million annually for its two racing facilities but this year was forced to cut that to roughly $7 million. Lawson said the organization is also taking a hard look at the construction of a GO train station at Woodbine.

“We’re really trying to figure out if we can afford to go forward with construction of the GO train station, which would be a huge plus for the property and ultimately a huge plus for the industry,” Lawson said. “We’ve suffered a major loss of employees and good people who’ll go out and get other jobs … you name it, it’s been decimated.

“None of us know where COVID is going but that’s going to have a lasting impact when you must go through a whole rebuilding period without a lot of the good people that we’ve had in this business for years. The financial impact of COVID is going to be felt by us for a long time.”

The ‘20 harness season began June 5 at Woodbine Mohawk Park after a 78-day hiatus. Horses ran there until March before action was suspended due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Woodbine opened its thoroughbred card June 6, a seven-week delay. And although both disciplines completed their stakes schedules, fans weren’t allowed at either track as racing was conducted with only essential personnel adhering to strict health-and-safety protocols.

Woodbine’s thoroughbred card, though, was bolstered by a Triple Crown run from Mighty Heart. The one-eyed colt won both the $1-million Queen’s Plate and $400,000 Prince of Wales before finishing seventh in the $400,000 Breeders’ Stakes on Oct. 24.

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, Lawson said there’s a definite sense of accomplishment that there were no outbreaks at either track and the ‘20 racing season was completed.

“It’s a huge sense of accomplishment,” said Lawson. “Who would’ve thought horse-racing would be considered one of the key businesses to open in phase one and be specifically listed as a business that could operate?

“We were able to stage all of our big events, we had good field sizes and our wagering — even though we dug a $100 million hole that we never got out of (with season delays) — since June week to week actually increased on the standardbred side and we held our own on the thoroughbred side, which is quite remarkable.

“When you don’t have many core elements of your business, there simply isn’t work for these people and it’s a real hit.”

Lawson has concerns about the impact having no fans in the stands will have on the racing industry.

“Common sense tells you if you lose a year or more of bringing people to the races, what does that do?” Lawson said. “If people don’t go to something for a year, maybe they realize they don’t need to go next year, don’t want to go or are just as happy watching it on TV.

“What does that do to our food and beverage business in the future?”

However, Lawson found the pandemic brought horse people together.

“They’ve had to make compromises and concessions and I think there’s been a good spirit of people being helpful, appreciative and co-operative,” he said. “I think people have come together and realized that we (Woodbine Entertainment) were trying to do the right thing.

“We’ve made mistakes and I’m certainly prepared to admit that but I think it’s been a positive from the perspective that we made decisions and there was an understanding we were trying to do the best for them. That’s very meaningful to me.”

On Tuesday, a private members bill tabled by Conservative MP Kevin Waugh on single-game sports betting is scheduled to have its second reading in Parliament. Lawson has long maintained Woodbine should definitely have a leadership role in single-game sports wagering.

“The largest and only legal online single-event sports wagering company in the country is Woodbine Entertainment,” he said. “There’s actually no other party that even comes close to our capabilities and I think it would be a huge, huge mistake to not have Woodbine Entertainment participate in sports wagering.

“We’re poised and ready to go with a whole system.”

Despite the challenges created by the pandemic — including no clear indication of when large groups of fans can attend sports events — Lawson has optimism about horse-racing’s future.

“My message since the beginning has been positive,” he said. “Yet there’s a harsh reality that we’re going through a business transformation that we’re working very hard at because we want to ensure this industry is sustainable.

“I think of this as keeping people employed, keeping this industry going and that’s why it hurts so much that we’ve lost so many good people. We want to keep people working because for 50,000 families, this is their livelihood.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2020.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press


Just Posted

Pro-Palestinian protesters run from police following a demonstration in Montreal, Sunday, May 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Tensions flare at Israel-Palestinian demonstrations in Montreal, Toronto

Tensions ran high at competing demonstrations over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in both… Continue reading

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, then-vice-president of logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada, participates in a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. An expert in military affairs says the sudden departure of the  general in charge of Canada's vaccine rollout is unlikely to have any impact on the high-profile program. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Canada to get 4.5M vaccine doses as questions swirl around immunization effort

OTTAWA — Canada is set to receive a large infusion of COVID-19… Continue reading

Israelis take cover as a siren sounds a warning of incoming rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)
Israeli strikes hit Gaza tunnels as diplomats work for truce

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Israeli military unleashed a wave… Continue reading

John Guise is seen at 4 weeks and one day after his birth, weighing two pounds and three ounces, in hospital in Hamilton, Ont., in an Aug. 1 1979, handout photo. Canadian researchers who've tracked a group of men who were born prematurely at a weight of less than one kilogram are finding they tend to age more quickly than male babies who aren't born prematurely. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-John Guise, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Boys born prematurely and very small age faster as men, study suggests

Canadian researchers who tracked a group of men who were born prematurely… Continue reading

In this photo taken on May 13, 2021, Russia's performer, Manizha, smiles during an interview after rehearsing at the Eurovision Song Contest at Ahoy arena in Rotterdam, Netherlands. For many, the stage and global television audience of millions is a chance to express messages of inclusion, strength and positivity. Manizha has a message of strength for women in her song whose lyrics include the lines: "Every Russian Woman. Needs to know. You're strong enough to bounce against the wall." (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Eurovision Song Contest returns despite coronavirus pandemic

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) — Pounding beats? Check. Uplifting lyrics? Check. Huge, backlit… Continue reading

Serena Williams of the United States returns the ball to Italy's Lisa Pigato during their match at the Emilia Romagna Open tennis tournament, in Parma, Monday, May 17, 2021. Serena Williams earned her first victory in more than three months by beating 17-year-old qualifier Lisa Pigato 6-3, 6-2 in the first round of the Emilia-Romagna Open. Williams accepted a wild-card invitation for the Parma tournament after losing her opening match at the Italian Open last week. (AP Photo/Marco Vasini)
Serena Williams posts 1st victory in more than 3 months

PARMA, Italy (AP) — Serena Williams earned her first victory in more… Continue reading

In this Oct. 21, 2014 file photo, people pass an AT&T store in New York's Times Square. AT&T will combine its media operations that include CNN HBO, TNT and TBS in a $43 billion deal with Discovery, the owner of lifestyle networks including the Food Network and HGTV. The deal announced Monday, May 17, 2021, would create a separate media company as households increasingly abandon cable and satellite TV, looking instead at Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
AT&T, Discovery join media brands as cord-cutting encroaches

NEW YORK (AP) — AT&T will combine its massive media operations that… Continue reading

The Minnesota Wild celebrate their overtime victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series Sunday, May 16, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Eriksson Ek’s OT goal lifts Wild past Vegas 1-0

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Joel Eriksson Ek’s goal at 3:20 of overtime… Continue reading

Toronto Blue Jays' Lourdes Gurriel Jr., celebrates after hitting a double against the Philadelphia Phillies during the third inning of a baseball game Sunday, May 16, 2021, in Dunedin, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
Girardi, Segura have confrontation as Phils lose to Jays

Blue Jays 10 Phillies 8 DUNEDIN, Fla. (AP) — The injury-depleted Philadelphia… Continue reading

New York Islanders' Kyle Palmieri (21) returns to the bench after scoring during the first period in Game 1 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Palmieri’s OT winner lifts Isles by Penguins 4-3 in Game 1

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The New York Islanders brought Kyle Palmieri home at… Continue reading

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing to examine an update from Federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19, Tuesday, May 11, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via AP)
Fauci says pandemic exposed ‘undeniable effects of racism’

ATLANTA (AP) — The immunologist who leads the COVID-19 response in the… Continue reading

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, vice-president of logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada, participates in a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Feds face growing calls for answers after general overseeing vaccine effort sidelined

OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government is facing growing calls for answers… Continue reading

Most Read