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